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Roseto, Pa: What can the experience of Italian-Americans tell us about the epidemic of loneliness?



In honesty, while a native of Pennsylvania, I had never heard of the small two called Roseto, which is located in the eastern part of the state. How did I learn of this community?


Doing some research about the continual epidemic of loneliness in America, I happened to learn of these people who became well known in the mid-20th Century because they had such low rates of heart disease.


However, upon investigation, researchers learned that the reasons for this are multi-faceted. In a 2008 book, an author discussed this little town and why this had occurred.


That story is illustrative of something that we should be studying in America in the 21st Century.


“Outliers”


Here is a little bit of background about that small community,


In his 2008 book, “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a small town called Roseto, located about 30 miles north of Allentown, in the foothills of Eastern Pennsylvania.

For years, Roseto primarily comprised of Italian immigrants who lived in multigenerational homes. As Gladwell wrote, the town made national news in the 1950s for its unprecedentedly low rates of heart disease relative to those of neighboring towns with more American traditions.

Social scientists were puzzled. The people of Roseto didn’t eat particularly healthily, often cooking with lard instead of olive oil. Meals typically consisted of cheese and fried meatballs, foods known to raise cholesterol levels. Many townspeople smoked cigars,worked in foundries and struggled with obesity.

But their emotional health flourished. As a close-knit group, the Rosetans seldom felt socially isolated. For years, the town was defined by friendships, social activity and support for one another. When someone was down, a loved one or neighbor was there to pick them up.


In other words: The Rosetans were rarely lonely.


Matt Gonzales, “America is lonely: The epidemic few are

talking about,” The Recovery Village, January 5, 2021


So, with loneliness being the second worst epidemic in America over the past few years, what can we learn about the relationship between low rates of heart disease and loneliness?


After looking at the usual physical causes for low numbers of heart disease victims, scientists realized that the causes could be more emotional than physical,

Are there more factors, maybe even “softer” factors, that also predict heart disease? There are and some of them relate to how many friends you have and other social factors. Some of the most interesting observations came from a town not all that far from Framingham. Roseto (population: 1,600) is a town in Eastern Pennsylvania, settled by immigrants from southern Italy in the 1880s. For decades, the people of Roseto were able to protect their traditions and lifestyles from the old country. In the 1950s, the town began to gain notoriety when it was reported that deaths due to heart disease were dramatically lower than neighboring towns that were more typically “American.”

For example, in the nearby town of Bangor (population: 5,000), there were 79 heart attacks from 1935–1944, compared to just 9 in nearby Roseto. Although the two towns are just a mile apart, they continued to show the same dramatic disparity in congestive heart failure and overall death rates for the next few decades.

However, as the data continued to be gathered, from 1965 to the present day, heart disease began to climb in Roseto and the so-called “Roseto Effect” began to disappear.

What did researchers observe to explain decades of almost complete freedom from heart events in Roseto?


Scientists could not explain it using the FRS. Roseto residents smoked cigars, worked in foundries, fried their meatballs, and ate cheese and salami with abandon. What they found was that life in Roseto was much different than surrounding areas.

Grandparents lived with grandchildren and many households had 3 or 4 generations under the same roof. Strong ties brought community wide celebrations for life cycle events and religious ceremonies. No one was ever alone, no one was ever lonely, no one was ever without overwhelming support and friendships. There was no crime, no locked doors, and no need for social welfare activities by the government as people took care of their own.


Joel Kahn, “The Roseto Effect: The amazing power of relationships

for heart health,” Medium.com, June 25, 2018


Then Roseto began to fall apart


However, this effect did not last. When America entered its great upheaval in the 1960s as Baby Boomers became adults, that sense of community that had bound people together in that small town started to disappear,


Beginning around the mid 1960s, traditions began to crumble. Children began to move away, attend university, marry outside the community, bring meals in paper bags, and embrace American suburban life. The introduction of a Western lifestyle with long hours of work and social isolation, increased stress, and a processed food diet produced a quick jump in heart attacks and deaths due to atherosclerosis.


Since then, Roseto has joined the melting pot of America and now suffers all of its chronic diseases.


Sadly, even today, it’s rare to see a medical student who has learned to inquire about a patient’s social support, circle of friends, family ties, and feeling of security. There is no Roseto Risk Score or anything quite like it to easily quantify and describe someone’s loneliness or connections.


What Roseto taught us is that we humans are social animals who fare best when we’re not alone or isolated. The price of modern society on our diet, our stress levels, our exposure to toxins, and also our loneliness has been high.


Joel Kahn, Medium.com, June 25, 2018



The complex problem of loneliness


What has occurred in America is that the loneliness that started in the 1960s has now become something that is creating issues in all of the country,

Loneliness is more than just a fleeting feeling of sadness that subsides within a few hours or even a few days. It is a subjective response to how a person feels a discrepancy between one’s desired and actual levels of social connection.


Roseto’s sense of community in the mid-20th century represents a stark contrast to today’s America — a country mired in loneliness.

Many Americans who deal with loneliness struggle to establish relationships. They might lack companionship and experience long periods of isolation. Even people with a large circle of friends and an active social life can feel a deep sense of detachment.

“Loneliness is a general feeling of aloneness, whether others are present or not,” Dr. Chrysalis Wright, associate lecturer for the psychology department at the University of Central Florida, told The Recovery Village. “Sometimes people can experience feelings of loneliness when around others.”


Today, Americans are lonelier than they’ve ever been. This contagious feeling has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, as people of all ages and backgrounds struggle to find a sense of belonging.


Matt Gonzales, The Recovery Village, January 5, 2021


The isolation spreads from young people to the elderly, with many youngsters being the loneliest in America. Roseto has perhaps shown us that the ways of America could be our undoing.


Social scientists are still exploring the Rosetto Effect, but they are making little progress in understanding it.

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