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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Being connected to your community can help you stay healthy

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It started in a medical centre in Pennsylvania. One of the local physicians, who had been caring for the residents of several adjoining communities for 17 years, noticed an intriguing trend. One of the communities, consisting exclusively of Italian immigrants, had almost no heart disease compared to residents in neighbouring towns. Why? The unique health of this community attracted a 30-year scientific study of their diet and lifestyle behaviours that provides valuable clues to help our modern communities become healthier too.

The community of Roseto, Pennsylvania, contained only immigrant Italian families. Their life revolved around subsistence farming initially as they struggled to settle in their new country. Family and society bonds were tight, and researchers noted that the residents were community-focused. Several generations lived in each household.

Almost right beside them was another community which shared their water supply and medical facilities.

In the early 1960s a team of scientists descended on Roseto and remained there for many years as they learnt why these residents were far less likely than their neighbouring community to suffer from heart attacks. The Roseto residents were long lived, healthy, and a cohesive community.

Was it their diet? Actually, no. Researchers were astonished to discover that their diets were less than ideal. They used more lard than olive oil; they didn’t cut the fatty strip off ham. They smoked cigarettes.

Was it less stress? No shortage of that. They were working hard to establish themselves in a sometimes hostile environment. Financial problems were intense. Conflict occurred between families and friends, as it does in all communities.

The surprising conclusion reached by the researchers was that the people of Roseto remained healthier because of their deep connection to the people they lived with. Each resident felt responsible for the wellbeing and quality of the community they lived in. They had powerful systems of family and community support to counteract the stressors. And that gave them the upper edge in their health.

Although I don’t suggest that you take up smoking and a high fat diet, you can use the experience of the Rosetans to help your own health. Consider what your connection to your community is. Do you participate in local events? Volunteer to help make your community a better place? And, do you have regular contact with other people to talk things over with?

Roseto is no longer the way it was. New generations began to branch out, and the old ways of strong community connections declined. With it, the average health of Rosetans declined too, to match the communities around them.

The lesson in this research is that remaining vibrantly healthy isn’t just about the science of nutrition and fitness – love and connection with the people around you will help you stay healthy too.

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