Can Loneliness Affect Your Health? A 50-Year Study

In the early 1960s, Dr. Stewart Wolf, a cardiologist and the Head of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma, was vacationing in the Poconos. While at a bar, he met a local doctor and over a couple of beers, learned that the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a community of immigrants from Roseto, Italy, weren't dying of heart disease. In fact, the local doctor told him, they didn't seem to have any of the diseases common to aging Americans; "They seem to be dying of old age!"

Intrigued, Dr Wolf looked at death rates for the community and indeed, the death rate due to myocardial infarction (heart attack) was less than half the surrounding communities or national average. Additionally, the community had no crime and nobody was on public assistance. These findings prompted a 50 year study of the Roseto community.

The inhabitants of Roseto had migrated from Italy and settled together, seeking a better life for their families. Certainly, researchers postulated, this medical phenomena must be due to the community's diet. Expecting to find a standard Mediterranean diet associated with Italy, they were shocked to learn that the community ate large amounts of meatballs and sausages fried in lard; they couldn't afford olive oil. They ate hard and soft cheeses, pastas and pizza. They drank wine like it was water and smoked unfiltered Stogies. 

By the 1970s, the younger generation started leaving the community and the social structure of the community changed significantly. The community disease rates increased until they mirrored the surrounding communities.

Baffled, researchers began studying the genetics of the community. They traced the family lines back to Italy and found others who had migrated to other parts of the United States. The medical data for the immigrants who did not settle in Roseto, PA, however, didn't reflect that of the Roseto community. They had disease rates that reflected the communities in which they lived. This ruled out genetics as the reason. Air and water quality were ruled out as factors, as was the community health care system; they received the same standard care as other American communities. 

As researchers continued to study the community, the picture of the Roseto lifestyle came into focus. This was a close-knit community who lived in multigenerational homes and shared multigenerational meals. The men worked in the local slate quarry, working back-breaking work, and often contracted illnesses associated with gas and dust inhalation. Stay-at-home wives were respected within the community, as well as other women who worked at the local clothing factory. In the afternoon, after work, community members would stop in and visit with neighbors and drink wine together. The community worshipped at the same church and celebrated holidays together. They helped each other out when they were down on their luck; the entire community would pitch in. 

By the 1970s, the younger generation started leaving the community and the social structure of the community changed significantly. The community disease rates increased until they mirrored the surrounding communities.  After years of study, researchers ultimately concluded that the community enjoyed the lower rate of chronic disease because the people of Roseto weren't lonely. They weren't getting sick because they were socially supported!

These findings are significant in terms of our understanding of health and how it relates to our support system. How might loneliness be affecting your health?