- Sebastien Grynko
Extract from the Outliers book by Malcom Gladwell
THESE PEOPLE WERE DYING OF OLD AGE. THAT'S IT.”
Roseto Valfortore lies one hundred miles southeast of Rome in the Apennine foothills of the Italian province of Foggia.
In the style of medieval villages, the town is organised around a large central square.
For centuries, the paesani of Roseto worked in the marble quarries in the surrounding hills, or cultivated the fields in the terraced valley below, walking four and five miles down the mountain in the morning and then making the long journey back up the hill at night.
Life was hard. The townsfolk were barely literate and desperately poor and without much hope for economic betterment until word reached Roseto at the end of the nineteenth century of the land of opportunity across the ocean.
In January of 1882, a group of eleven Rosetan men and one boy set sail for New York. Those immigrants, in turn, sent word back to Roseto about the promise of the New World, and soon one group of Rosetans after another packed their bags and headed for Pennsylvania, until the initial stream of immigrants became a flood. In 1894 alone, some twelve hundred Rosetans applied for passports to America, leaving entire streets of their old village abandoned.
The Rosetans began buying land on a rocky hillside connected to Bangor by a steep, rutted wagon path. They built closely clustered two-story stone houses with slate roofs on narrow streets running up and down the hillside.
In the beginning, they called their town New Italy. But they soon changed it to Roseto, which seemed only appropriate given that almost all of them had come from the same village in Italy.
In 1896, a dynamic young priest by the name of Father Pasquale de Nisco took over at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. De Nisco set up spiritual societies and organized festivals. He encouraged the townsfolk to clear the land and plant onions, beans, potatoes, melons, and fruit trees in the long backyards behind their houses. He gave out seeds and bulbs.
The town came to life. The Rosetans began raising pigs in their backyards and growing grapes for homemade wine. Schools, a park, a convent, and a cemetery were built. Small shops and bakeries and restaurants and bars opened along Garibaldi Avenue. More than a dozen factories sprang up making blouses for the garment trade.
In 1964 a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined the population of recent Italian immigrants in Roseto. The study was initiated because the town doctor was completely shocked by the Rosetans near immunity to heart disease.
During the seven year period of study from 1955-1961:
No-one in Roseto under the age of 47 died of a heart attack; there was a complete absence of heart disease in men under the age of 55
The rate of heart attacks in men over 65 was half the national average
The death rates from all causes was 35% lower than anywhere else
The doctors started asking themselves what could possibly make the Rosetans so healthy ?
First they looked at diet. They thought the Rosetans must be eating a healthy ‘Mediterranean’ diet of fish, olive oil and fresh vegetables. Actually they ate high fat meatballs and sausages, with an average fat intake of up to 40% of their entire diet! And the fats weren’t your ‘healthy’ types of fat, for the Rosetans liked to fry all of their food in good old lard.
The researchers started looking at their lifestyle. The Rosetans were very hard working and a lot of them worked in slate quarries or mines. As for leisure time, the Rosetans loved their wine and cigars and consumed a lot of both.
To put in a nutshell they ate like shit and work like horses, in harsh environment and conditions yet their hearts seemed to be stronger than their contemporaries.
The researchers studied all other possible factors such as ethnicity, (they checked other relatives in other parts of the country. None of them were as healthy)water supply, environment, you name it. In the end, the researchers concluded that the unusually low incidence of heart disease in the town could not be attributed to any of these factors.
However, they noticed a remarkably close-knit community that was cohesive and mutually supportive with strong family and community ties, where the elderly in particular were not marginalised, but revered. Put simply, the Rosetans lived in village community with real relationships with one another.
They were not only self-sufficient but they were also a relatively egalitarian society, in appearance at least.
Life was centered around the church and wealth was not flaunted by the wealthier, and those in more need were helped by the community.
There were more than twenty different civic associations for a population of only 2000. There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn't have anyone on welfare.
The extended family clans and their common identity made it easier for them to relate to one and another and keep this closeness and intimacy.
The books mutual aid and tribes are a must-read if you are interested in this phenomenon. It is very clear to me that we have lost something essential in our modern society.
It is pretty obvious that relationships are more superficial and at this point we all understand that loneliness and isolation are rampant but what we failed to notice is the effect it can have on our health.
For crying out loud, those Rosetans were doing everything you are not supposed to do, to remain healthy. Everything we were taught about fitness, diet and relaxation.
They were very hardworking, cigar smoking, wine consumer and fat kind of people. You would think that would be enough to annihilate a whole population.
No.. They actually turned out to be healthier... The community, the collective, the proximity between people and the depth of care and compassion between the Rosetans made them healthier than others of have succumbed to the modern way of life.
In the 1970's, there was suburbanisation of the region, including the town. Single family homes, fenced yards, country clubs were brought in. The social ties weakened and then started to fail.
It took until 1971 for the first person under age 45 to die of a heart attack in Roseto.
So the Rosetans joined the rest of the United States. The Rosetans are not what they used to be anymore.. Here is something to think about..
- Sebastien Grynko