Nowadays, the emphasis on living a healthy lifestyle is based on diet and exercise. But in the 1950’s, a study by a physician in a small town called Roseto in the state of Pennsylvania showed some surprising results.
Roseto was settled in the 1880s by a group of immigrants from a town of the same name in Italy. By the mid-1890s, the town numbered about 2,000 people and had about a dozen factories making blouses for the garment trade. The town is still overwhelmingly Italian and the language is still spoken there.
In his book, “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Dr. Wolf who was invited to give a talk at a medical society in the region of Roseto. After the talk, he was talking to a local physician who said that he rarely found anyone from Roseto under the age of 65 with heart disease. Dr. Wolfe decided to investigate this and, together with a team of colleagues and students, gathered the death certificates from the residents of the town, going back as far as they could. They also looked at doctors’ records, took medical histories and constructed family genealogies. In 1961, they started to take blood samples from the residents.
The team found that hardly anyone under the age of 55 had heart disease or had died of a heart attack. The death rate from heart disease for people over 65 was half that in the United States as a whole. In addition, the death rate from all causes in Roseto was about 30 percent lower than expected.
On further investigation, the team found that in the town there was no alcoholism, no suicide, no drug addictions, and very little crime.
Even more surprising was the fact that the Rosetans ate a lot of saturated fats, bread, and sweets, and did very little exercise. Approximately 40 percent of their calories came from saturated fat. Also, many Rosetans were obese and smoked heavily. Hardly a healthy lifestyle by most standards!
Dr. Wolfe thought that the cause of the Roseatans’ good health must be due to genetics. But when he tracked down Rosetans’ close relatives living in other parts of the United States, he found that their health was similar to that of the average American.
Nor was that Rosetans’ good health due to the area in which they lived. In the two towns nearest to Roseto, the death rate from heart disease in men over 65 was three times that of Rosetan men. It was obvious, that the reason for the people’s good health was due to Roseto itself.
It turned out that Roseto had a very close-knit community. Many homes had three generations living under one roof, grandparents were revered, the people were extremely social and friendly to one another, and in the town of just under 2,000 people there were 22 different civic organizations. It was the social structure that was protecting the Rosetans from heart disease and other diseases.
Nowadays, as at the time this study was done, the belief is that health depends on diet, exercise, genetic inheritance and the medical system. In writing about this study, Gladwell concluded, “… the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.” And who we are affects our health.
What can we learn from this? One thing I think, is that caring about our fellow citizens gives us as much as it gives them. Our health depends upon the health of our neighbours, and not only on their physical health but on their financial health and happiness as well.
So what can you do today to improve your health? How about helping someone worse off than yourself, getting together with a group of friends over meal, or visiting someone who is sick or lonely. Now that would be healthy living!