Any talk of heart disease – the world’s leading killer – is synonymous with bad genes, bad diet and bad luck. If you’ve already been diagnosed with heart disease, chances are you’ve got a cupboard full of heart pills and cholesterol is a dirty word. For those with a family history, heart disease is explained away by the misfortune of having someone else’s shonky genes. For others, it’s plain bad luck.
Or so we’ve been led to believe.
Truth is, there is a high degree of correlation between westernization and mortality due to heart disease. Back in the 1960s, a small town in Pennsylvania bucked the consumption trend that had long enveloped the rest of America and taught us a lesson in health in the process.
Roseto was a virtual haven for well-being, with a mortality rate from heart disease roughly half that of every surrounding community. Rosetans had the same water and similar jobs, income, education and ethnicity as their neighbouring townsfolk, yet they were far healthier. Why?
Turns out it’s got nothing to do with diet or genes or bad luck. But it does have a lot to do with ties. For Rosetans were a close-knit bunch who expressed themselves in a family- and community-centred social life based around mutual support and interdependence.
At the heart of Roseto was the avoidance of isolation. Individuals mattered and the problems of everyday life were shared
No one lived alone in Roseto, there was no crime to speak of, and no one was unduly stressed out. Rosetans ate salami and cheese, and fried their meatballs in lard. And the elderly were neither institutionalized nor marginalized, but were gainfully installed as arbitrators in everyday life. At the heart of Roseto was the avoidance of isolation, desolation and desperation. Individuals mattered and the problems of everyday life were shared, not internalized.
All this was to change when, in 1962, investigators made the prescient observation that as Rosetans became more “Americanized”, they would also become less healthy. And so it came to be. It took a few years, but in 1971 the first Rosetan under age 45 died of a heart attack. Within a generation, the mortality rate from heart disease had reached the national average. And Rosetans began to pop pills and watch their diets like everyone else.
Take home message: In the present context, “Americanization” is used by the investigators in Roseto as a euphemism for social isolation and disconnectedness. To be “Americanized” is to place yourself at risk of heart disease and other physical diseases. But the solution is also apparent. Read here to find out what you can do to improve your health.
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