Most dietary advice focuses on eating the right foods, but it turns out that the people you eat with might have as much influence on your health as your food choices.
Nowhere is the evidence for the importance of social connections on health as striking as in the findings from a study of Roseto, Pennsylvania. Roseto is a small town in eastern Pennsylvania that was the site of an unprecedented public health discovery.
The story begins in the late 1800’s, when families from the Italian city of Roseto in the province of Foggia began to emigrate to Pennsylvania and formed a new town, Roseto, Pennsylvania.
By the mid 1950’s, a public health study of US cities revealed a curious fact about Roseto — the death rate from heart attacks was extraordinarily low-less than half that of the neighboring towns. The finding of exceptional heart health finding prompted a team of investigators to descend on Roseto to learn why their inhabitants enjoyed such robust heart health.
Paradoxically, the investigators examined the eating habits in Roseto and found them to be lacking. Lard was preferred over olive oil. Pressed ham was a preferred dish, as were fried peppers, and alcohol was abundant. Body weight and serum cholesterol levels were similar to surrounding communities.
Magic of the Many
The research team did, however, identify a singular outstanding facet of life in Roseto: a remarkably tight network of social connections that was quite distinct from that of surrounding communities. Most families in Roseto lived in 3 generation homes that included grandparents, and the social life was consistently family focused. The tenor of life in Roseto was colorfully described by the investigators as “boisterous, unpretentious… and mutually supporting”. Neighbors provided for needy families and recent immigrants who continued to arrive from Italy.
The research team concluded that it was the exceptionally close social fabric of Roseto that explained the unprecedented low death rate from heart disease.
Ten years later, however, investigators were shocked to discover that a repeat analysis of health in Roseto showed that the heart attack death rate had precipitously climbed to reach-or exceed- that in surrounding communities.
What Happened in Roseto?
Public health officials again visited Roseto and identified a significant change from the past. Investigators found that traditionally rooted social links that had bound residents so strongly in the past had begun to loosen. Three generational families were much less common, social life was no longer family-focused, and the overall community was much less cohesive. With the fraying of these social connections, heart attack death rates matched those of it’s neighboring towns. Roseto, quite literally, lost it’s heart.
A Little Help From Your Friends
Another study shows how the health implications of social connections-or lack thereof-can play out even after a diagnosis of heart disease is made. In a survey of patients who underwent coronary bypass surgery, those who answered “yes” to the statement “I feel lonely” had a more than double risk of dying 30 days after surgery, even after accounting for differences in the medical factors known to influence survival. Five years later, the early report of loneliness cut survival in half. Even the wonderful benefits of high tech medicine can be thwarted by a lack of human connection.
Put Energy Into People
Absolutely focus on eating more whole foods from plant sources, but realize that optimal health requires more than just making the right food choices. The evidence shows that the nourishment you need comes from people as well as food.