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Living in community - more important than a healthy diet?

In one of my favorite books ‘More brain less medicine’, dr. Lissa Rankin describes an amazing discovery that has been done in the 60s in the village Roseto, close to Pennsylvania, about the effect of living in community on physical health. Below I’ll recap what she describes.

Back in the day, Roseto was inhabited by Italian immigrants who were looking for a brighter future for their children. Their life was not necessarily healthy in the physical sense; they worked long days in the quarries and textile factories. The typical diet composed of mountains of pasta, Italian sausages, meatballs baked in bacon oil, and wine was flowing richly. For lack of money for olive oil, cooking was done in lard. In fact, 41% of their calories came from fat. Many of them smoked and little exercise was done.

In the 60s, dr. Stewart Wolf, whose attention was drawn by coincidence by Rosetos local doctor, made a remarkable discovery: in a time that heart attacks occurred in epidemic proportions and counted as the most important cause of death in men under age 65, the occurrence of heart attacks in men under age 65 in Roseto had nearly been 0 in the previous 7 years. The amount of heart attacks was about half of the national average, whereas the number of Rosetos neighboring city Bangor did correspond with the national average. Further investigation also pointed out that there was no cases of suicide, alcoholism, or drug addiction, and that there was hardly any crime. No one needed benefits, and ulcers were non-occurring either. People mainly died of old age.

Extensive research was being done to find an explanation for the apparent immunity for disease in this population and as much as two-thirds of the population was being followed, questioned and examined in many ways. The explanation would obviously not be found in the unhealthy diet and lack of exercise, and genetic factors didn’t seem to play a role either. So they investigated quality of drinking water and of medical care compared to surrounding places, but no explanation was found. Eventually the researchers concluded that it was the way of living that protected Rosetos inhabitants against diseases.

Rankin describes this way of living as follows: “At night you’ll see how the town Roseto will come to life when people return from their jobs, strolling through the main street, halting to gossip with the neighbors and maybe drink a glass of wine with them before going home and get dressed for dinner. When the church bells ring, you’ll see the women gather together in communal kitchens to prepare a classic Italian feast, while the men move the tables together in anticipation of the evening ritual that brings the community together… Multiple generation homes are the norm. Everybody goes to church. Neighbours regularly walk into each others kitchens and the holidays are cheerfully celebrated together. The work ethic in the community is strong. Not only does everybody in Roseto have a job, they share a common mission, a life goal that brings some relief to their grueling work: they dream of a better life for their children. The people of Roseto take care of each other. Nobody in Roseto will be left to their own devices. Roseto in 1961 is the living proof of the power of the clan."

Dr. Stewart Wolf concluded from his research that a strongly connected community that support each other, is a better predictor of a healthy heart than cholesterol levels and tobacco use.

Later, the importance of community was shown once again, but this time unfortunately by lack thereof.

“While the people of Rosetto exhausted themselves in the quarries and textile factories, sacrificing themselves for a better future for their children, the younger generation wasn’t so happy at all with the life in Rosetto, which in their eyes seemed immune for modernization. When the young people left to study, they brought back new ideas to Roseto, new dreams and new people. Italian Americans started to marry non-Italians, kids didn’t go to church anymore, became part of different associations and moved to single family homes with pools and fences. Because of these changes, multigenerational homes fell into disrepair and social life shifted from communal evening meals to the ‘everyone-for-themselves’ philosophy that was common in neighboring municipalities. The neighbors that previously regularly visited each other unanticipated, would now make an appointment by telephone. The evening ritual of singing adults while the kids played with marbles and played tag, changed into evenings in front of the television.”

The effect of the loss of the once so strongly connected community soon translated into a decline in the physical health of this population. “In 1971, when the amount of heart attacks in other parts of the country decreased because of a widespread adoption of healthier eating habits and regular exercise, for the first time in Roseto someone of the age under 45 died of a heart attack. The next decennium the amount of heart diseases doubled in Roseto. The amount of cases of high blood pressure tripled. The amount of strokes increased. By the end of the 70s, the amount of fatal heart attacks leveled the national average.”

Dr. Wolf concluded that an isolated individual can easily become overwhelmed by the challenges of every day and this can provoke a stress response. An individual surrounded by a supporting community however, relaxes himself. This type of relaxation translated itself into positive effects on the physiology of the body, which in turn leads to disease prevention and, sometimes, disease remission.

In case you find yourself thinking that you’re not lacking any relaxation, so you can hold off on your sports class this week and give yourself some slack when it comes to diet, then I’ve unfortunately relayed the wrong message. A healthy lifestyle is essential to do as little harm to your body as possible. But do realize that the wellbeing of your mind, and specifically spending enough time in relaxation, has an unparalleled effect on our physical wellbeing!

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