Roseto, a small village which nestles in the mountains near Philadelphia, suddenly shot into fame because of the announcement of the results of a detailed study carried out several years ago by the National Heart and Lung Institute, of America, on the relationship between the mental and physical health of its residents. The findings threw new light on the real reasons why fatal heart attacks occur so frequently and suggested how the trend could be reversed. It was felt that the story of Roseto holds useful lessons for the rest of the world.
The members of the study team found that the residents of Roseto were all Italian Americans. The village had narrow streets and the houses were closely situated to each other so that the residents could sit on their porches and talk to their neighbours in a relaxed manner. There were only 30 business establishments in Roseto, all concentrated on the main street. A pair of cousins had their bakeries there, and all the five restaurants in the village were situated on the first floor of their owners’ homes. Though many of the villagers were wealthy, there was a singular lack of ostentation. Everyone was dressed like a typical Italian villager. The villagers could recognise one another and everyone knew the names of all the other residents of the village. The village had a leader similar to a mayor whose consent was necessary to carry out any important task. The villagers were known for their hospitality and pleasant disposition.
The study revealed that the death rate due to myocardial infarction (heart attack) in Roseto was less than 50 per cent
The results published by the study were far-reaching in their implications. They revealed that death rate due to myocardial infarction (heart attack) in Roseto was less than 50 per cent when compared with the neighbouring villages and even much lesser when compared with the rest of the country. The remarkably low death rate was especially significant in young persons; there had been no coronary deaths in persons below the age of 47 years.
What was particularly surprising was that Rosetoans were insulated from heart ailments even though all the factors that are regarded a precursor to heart trouble, such as overweight, consumption of animal fat, poor exercise habits and smoking were just as prevalent among the residents of Roseto as their neighbours in other villages.
Doctors were naturally puzzled and were unable to explain why the residents were immune to myocardial infarction. The study carried out by the National Heart and Lung Institute attributed the immunity to a lifestyle characterized by old-world values, traditions customs, and adaptability.
The study revealed the following aspects in respect of the pattern of life in the village;
- Family relationships in the village were extremely close and mutually supportive. Such ties fostered a sense of security
- The same quality of the relationship was extended to the neighbours and to the community as a whole, generating a feeling of unity among the villagers.
- There were a conflict-free and well-defined man-woman relationship, in which the man was the uncontested head of the family (the point here is not that it was a male-dominated society but that it was a community in which the decision-making process was smooth and involving no strain. The equation would have been the same even if a woman had traditionally been the head of the family!
- The elderly were respected and loved; they retained their authority and influence throughout life and were consulted by younger people on various matters. In other words, they felt they were still useful to Roseto society
- The villagers had a positive and optimistic attitude towards life.
- There was no sense of competition or rivalry and people did not want to keep pace with their neighbours in acquisitions or achievements.
The main source of strength for Rosetoans was the ‘family’
Apart from all these factors what struck the study team as the main source of strength for Rosetoans was the ‘family.’ The families were connected with each other through intermarriage. Under such circumstances, personal and family problems were solved very easily by mutual discussions or with the help of the leaders or the priest. Family celebrations, in which everyone took part, were frequently held and the entire social life of the village revolved around the few civic organisations of the town.
The study team, however, noticed that in the middle of the last century some changes began to appear in the lifestyle of the people of Roseto. Many young residents moved away from the village to study in colleges (located in towns). There was an increase in inter-ethnic and inter-denominational marriages and so the old family structure broke down. There was a decline in the birth rate in the village and church attendance decreased. There was an erosion of old-world values and the social restraints against the display of wealth and vanity crumbled. Women became more conscious of their physical appearances and dress habits. Several joined weight-reducing programmes and beauty courses. Men joined clubs and took part in competitive tournaments. In the following decades, posh houses and expensive cars like Cadillacs began to appear. Family ties and cultural values totally disappeared.
It was but natural that Rosetoans had to pay a price for their new lifestyle: this they did by surrendering their immunity to death from heart attacks. From the last quarter of the previous century onwards there was a striking increase in heart ailments. At the turn of the century death from myocardial infarction occurred for the first time in Roseto in men under 55— a group in which died due to this cause had been unheard of previously. Soon the heart attack rate in this village was on par with that of the neighbouring towns. Doctors and sociologists who observed what had happened to the villagers of Roseto concluded that the first signs of trouble had appeared when young people had started to move away from their families to go to colleges or take up jobs creating a cleavage in the Rosetoan cultural and family life.
Middle-aged Rosetoans were ill-equipped to handle the community problems on their own suddenly, particularly since they were also getting used to material pleasures. What had apparently caused the surge in heart problems in Roseto was the disappearance of supportive elements such as family ties, friendships, and community kinship that had once served as buffers against stress. The study made in Roseto clearly indicated that heart attacks occur less frequently in places where traditions of interdependence and family ties are strong. Sudden death often follows the rupture of human relationships and the emotional shock caused by some bereavement or abandonment. It would appear that people can tolerate a lot of abuse at work if they can go home to a welcoming and comforting environment where they can get a feeling of being appreciated and experience a sense of belonging.
This is the lesson that the Heart and Lung Institute learnt from studying the changing lifestyle of the people of Roseto.
As long as they lived a life described by Grey in his Elegy
“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learnt to stray
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
They were protected from heart ailments. When their lifestyle changed, they no longer had this protective shield and they became vulnerable to heart attacks just like people in other villages, and towns in America.