What is the key to a long and happy life? Money, fame or something else? There are many factors, including social factors, that contribute to an extended human lifespan.
Interesting observations came from an important study that took place not too long ago in a town in Eastern Pennsylvania – Roseto. The town, with a population of around 1,600, was settled by immigrants from southern Italy in the 1880s.
The study found striking differences in mortality from myocardial infarction (commonly known as a heart attack) between Rosetans – the homogeneous Italian-American community in Pennsylvania, the United States – and other nearby towns between 1955 and 1965. These differences gradually disappeared as they became more "Americanised."
The conclusions of the study are compelling today because they suggest that there is a remarkably simple and massively effective way to relieve stress. The only issue is that many of the institutions that had traditionally supported such a healthy and prolonged lifespan are disappearing, if not completely.
Let's start from the beginning.
Roseto Valfortore is a small town about one hundred miles southeast of Rome, Italy. For hundreds of years, the people of Roseto lived by extracting marble from the mountains and farming the valleys. Back then, the Rosetans were not brought up under an education system. They faced day-to-day struggles, and their lives were turbulent.
In 1882, 11 Rosetans embarked on a sea voyage in search of fortune and reached America. They settled in Eastern Pennsylvania while working in a slate mine. When the news of the "Land of Opportunity" reached Roseto Valfortore, Rosetans began flocking to Pennsylvania.
The Rosetans occupied that area of Pennsylvania and named the place – Roseto (after Roseto Valfortore from where the original inhabitants came). They built close-knit houses. They started growing vegetables and fruits in front and backyards. They made wine from grapes from their own gardens. They gradually built schools, churches, bakeries etc, and soon it turned into a lively, bustling city.
In the late 1950s, Stewart Wolf, then head of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma, arrived in Pennsylvania to attend a seminar. He encountered a local doctor and received some surprising information from him that patients with myocardial infarction were found all over Pennsylvania, but there were barely a few under the age of 65 in Roseto town. Wolf was baffled and intrigued by the information.
During the 1950s, drugs to lower cholesterol levels were neither popular nor readily available. Heart diseases were spreading in the US like an epidemic.
Wolf, along with several other researchers, arrived in Roseto. They examined death certificates from the mid-1950s and 1960s at the state and federal levels. It was revealed that Roseto had nearly no heart attacks for the otherwise high-risk group of men – 55 to 64. Men over 65 had a death rate of 1%, while the national average was 2% (1954-1961).
The "Roseto effect" was then first noticed in 1961 by researchers – the unusually low rate of myocardial infarction in the Italian-American community of Roseto compared with other locations.
Later, they conducted further research, including testing blood samples of the residents of Roseto. The results were remarkable, showing there was no sign of even a peptic ulcer among the residents. The relevant records further revealed that there were no suicides, no drug addiction, and no alcoholism in Roseto and the crime rate in Roseto was virtually nonexistent.
When compared to the lifespans and health conditions of those in neighbouring towns, Rosetans were somewhere around half as likely to be stricken with things like heart attacks, hypertension and strokes.
Simply put, the residents of the town only died of old age.
Primarily, the researchers suggested a unique diet as the underlying reason behind the groundbreaking differences. But in reality, it turned out that they used to cook with olive oil before arriving in Pennsylvania in 1882. They started cooking with lard (a semi-solid white fat product obtained by rendering the fatty tissue of a pig) in Roseto, Pennsylvania. The Rosetans loved pasta and wine, feasted on sausages and about 41% of their calories came from fat. They smoked the occasional cigar.
To summarise, their diet was nowhere near being a "healthy" diet.
The Rosetans did not follow any exercise routine either. Moreover, many of them had overweight and obesity problems.
Now you must be wondering – what was the actual reason behind the significant difference between them and other communities? Were they genetically unique? No, not that, either.
Records of Rosetans living in other parts of the US showed that their mortality rate from heart disease was similar to those of other Americans. So what's different about the Rosetans of Pennsylvania?
If you're thinking about the difference in geographical location – no, not even that. The European immigrants living in Nazareth and Bangor towns, just a few miles from Roseto, were as hard-working as the Rosetans. But the rate of heart disease was three times higher among them than that of Rosetans.
Finally, after a long stay in Roseto, Wolf and Sociologist John Bruhn solved the mystery of the Rosetans. Rather than genetics, diet or geography, the social structure and culture of the Rosetans were the core reason for their long and happy lives.
The Rosetans lived in close-knit communities. They loved each other and took every opportunity to engage as a community. The local clubs, organisations, potlucks and more were routinely well-attended. Several generations of a single family often lived together under the same roof.
A unique relationship existed between neighbours. The elderly were naturally less stressed as there was always someone looking out for them because of the cordial relationship between family and neighbours.
They reached out to those across the street more than locking themselves in. They preferred backyard bingo over indoor entertainment activities, unlike our generation, who like to stay in and watch Netflix. Every evening in Roseto was like a festival – people cooking for one another, joining tables and having dinner together in the front yard. Lively stories and songs used to go on till midnight.
Result? Stress levels were so low they were practically off the charts (in a good way) and lifespans reflected the unique comfort level. It became a phenomenon referred to as the "Roseto effect," by which a close-knit community experiences a reduced rate of heart disease and extended life span.
As Malcolm Gladwell indicated in his book Outliers – the high quality of interpersonal relationships was the reason for the Rosetans' long and happy lives.
A few years ago, Harvard published the results of one of its longest studies which started in 1938. The detailed study was conducted on 724 people for over 75 years. The study led by Dr Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, found a strong link between happiness and close relationships with family and friends.
Among the 724 people, those who lived alone or could not develop strong human relationships were relatively unhappy, whether or not they had a lot of money and fame. Their health deteriorated rapidly, and their thinking skills declined relatively quickly. Moreover, they had shorter life spans than the average.
Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. "Personal connection creates emotional stimulation, which is an automatic mood booster, while isolation is a mood buster," said Dr Waldinger.
What's the take? Money and fame can surely bring gratification in the short run. But spiritual peace is hard to achieve without forming a strong and trusting relationship with your close ones.
Rafid Hossain is an economics graduate student from Dhaka University.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.