On the eastern edge of Pennsylvania, about 15 minutes from the Delaware River and the state of New Jersey, lies the small town of Roseto. It was founded in the late 1800’s by Italian immigrants who settled to work in the local slate quarries. Roseto would go largely unnoticed until 1961, when a chance meeting between two doctors catapulted the town into the spotlight.
Dr. Stewart Wolf, a cardiologist and Head of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma, had just delivered a presentation on trends in heart disease and heart attacks. Roseto’s resident physician was in the audience and approached Dr. Wolf with a shocking observation. Heart disease rates in Roseto were half the national average. Furthermore, he could not recall a single instance of heart attack within the high-risk 55-64 age group during the past decade.
After additional discussion over a few beers, Dr. Wolf knew a more thorough investigation was needed. He and a team traveled to Roseto and began a multi-year study of the town’s inhabitants. A study of death certificates for the prior 30 years confirmed the doctor’s statement. Incredibly, Rosetans displayed an odd resistance to heart-related illnesses. Other communities located just minutes away looked statistically identical to the rest of the United States. What could possibly account for the uncharacteristically good health of this group?
First Dr. Wolf looked at diet. But that wasn’t the answer. Rosetans ate traditional, high-cholesterol Italian foods. Sausages, salami, and meatballs were all fried in lard, and coupled with hard and soft cheeses. “Fat-free” was nowhere to be found. They also drank wine with every meal.
Next, Wolf studied their work conditions. The men, always the most at-risk for heart attack, worked long, hard days in the quarry. They came home coughing from the dust and chemicals used in the mining process. At home, they relaxed with old-style, unfiltered cigars. Aside form the work in the mines, there was no standard of exercise.
For years, Dr. Wolf and his team scrutinized every aspect of life in Roseto, trying to account for the unusually healthy inhabitants. Nothing about their diet, working conditions, or even the environment provided a clue. Then one day, he looked beyond the physical attributes of the town and turned his attention to the intangible.
Families were close-knit. Townspeople favored local businesses over larger retailers in nearby towns. There was virtually no division based on wealth. Neighbors knew each other and came to each other’s aid. Stress was virtually nonexistent.
Roseto had no crime. Zero.
In fact, everywhere he looked, Wolf saw townspeople helping each other. Rather than occupying themselves with their own gain, Rosetans seemed to be keenly focused on helping each other. No one in the town was a stranger. No one felt alone.
And a thought occurred to Dr. Wolf. A strong sense of community breeds healthy individuals. People become stronger and healthier when they band together for the common good. A community built on service will thrive despite overwhelming obstacles.
Sadly, change came to Roseto. By 1970, the strong sense of community had eroded. Young people left to pursue careers elsewhere. Outside influences changed the socio-economic makeup of the town. Fences and country clubs began to appear. Rosetans started to look and act just like people everywhere else. In 1971, the Roseto saw its first heart attack under the age of 45. Today, the town’s rate of heart disease looks just like anyone else’s.