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Family Faith: The benefits of genuine community

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

By Pat McDonough

Roseto Valfortore is a small Italian village outside of Rome. In 1882 Rosetans began leaving their homeland for the United States. By the dawn of the 20th century so many of its inhabitants had settled in the same rocky part of Pennsylvania, that they decided to name their new home in honor of their old home.

In the 1950s, Roseto, Pa., became the focus of a medical dilemma. Roseto’s doctor reported that he rarely treated any of his patients for heart disease, which in that time was the leading cause of death in men under 65 in the United States. Why were Rosetans immune from this American epidemic? 

Studies ensued in search of an answer. Science looked first at the Rosetan diet, then at their overall lifestyle. They smoked, they drank, consumed high fat foods and didn’t exercise, and still, they outlived their American counterparts. What about genetics? Research tracked down other families who had emigrated from Roseto, Italy, but dispersed and settled in other parts of the United States. They were not enjoying the same good health as those in Roseto, Pa. So scientists looked more intently on that particular part of Pennsylvania. Those living in the areas surrounding Roseta did not share the mysterious good health of the Rosetans.

Medical researchers reviewed residents’ records arduously, but they remained baffled, so they brought in a team of sociologists who went house to house interviewing everyone over the age of 21. There was no alcoholism, no drug addiction, no suicide and virtually no crime. Decades of studies concluded that the happier, healthier Rosetans owed their good fortune to their history. When they arrived from Italy, they re-created and maintained the communal lifestyle that had sustained them for centuries. They continue to live in large extended families, socialize regularly, stopping for 30 minutes to talk with the butcher or a passer by.

They offer themselves in service to their community, particularly their parish church. Rosetans attend Mass at our Lady of Mount Carmel and report feeling connected and calmer, more unified with their neighbors. They established 22 civic organizations in addition to parish organizations — all for a population of 2,000 people.

Science tells us that genuine community protects and insulates its members from the pressures of a constantly changing world. Family cohesiveness and religious rituals have a positive affect on our heart rates, blood pressure and mood.

Research in recovery, whether it’s from cancer or addiction, consistently shows healing to be more comprehensive and enduring when a support group is involved. The families of Roseta, their church and their civic organizations provide a support system that protects them from feelings of isolation, loneliness, uselessness and depression. Their relationship driven lifestyle doesn’t value individual achievement as much as it values good health and happiness for all

The same could be said for the religious Sisters living in convents. In his book Aging With Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives (Bantam Books, 2001), David Snowden provides a compelling presentation of his longitudinal study of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Snowden and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota initiated a pilot study on Alzheimer’s disease in 1986 using data collected from SSND’s living in Mankato, Minn., and eventually from older SSNDs throughout the United States.

The goal of the Nun Study was to determine the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and the mental and physical disabilities associated with ageing. Why study nuns? Many factors that compromise research are either eliminated or minimized because of their relatively homogeneous lifestyles and living situations. All participants were non-smokers, drank little if any alcohol, were not married, had no children, lived together, shared similar jobs and accessed regular medical care.

Snowden concluded several things about brain disease, but discovered a few other things, as well. The women who expressed the most positive emotions ended up living longest, and those with the most education had more active minds and healthier brains. But there was another finding.

Living in religious community, each Sister felt the presence of others who affirmed her identity, who included her in the life of the community, which allowed each Sister to feel secure, alleviating the anxiety that accompanies isolation. Every nun continued to work in a service oriented job and participated in the life of the community by leading prayer or cooking dinner or tending to housekeeping chores. And of course, all women of deep faith, they felt part of something bigger than themselves.

So while science continues to examine the key to living longer, it seems that the formula is right in the Gospel. Live in community, care for others and know, first and foremost, we live in the hands of an all loving God.

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