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The Mystery of Roseto

It's no secret that belonging is a fundamental human need. Thanks to a small town of Italian immigrants who found - then lost - the fountain of youth, we've learned that belonging and a shared purpose contribute to our lives as much as diet, exercise and other measures of health. 

Roseto is a small quarry town in Italy about 100 miles from Rome. For centuries, life was hard for the people Roseto. They worked in the quarries and lived a meager life. In January 1882, 11 Rosetans 10 men and 1 boy set sail for the United States and ultimately found their way to an area near Bangor, PA. The next year 15 more came over, and the trend continued. By 1894, more than 1200 Rosetans had made their way to America.

Now this small group of people would have lived in obscurity had it not been for a local Roseto doctor who encountered Dr. Stewart Wolf, then head of Medicine of the University of Oklahoma. The doctors discussed the unusually low rate of myocardial infarction in Roseto compared with the neighboring areas.

The two closest towns, Bangor and Nazareth were both about the same size as Roseto, populated with the same number of European immigrants. Yet, the death rates in both towns were more than 3 times that of Roseto.

Researchers found that their protection from heart disease had nothing to do with environmental factors. Nor was it that they lived a healthy lifestyle of diet and exercise.

The secret of the Rosetans was the way they lived together. In their shared origins, and shared journey and shared vision to create a new Roseto, they took care of one another, they were unified and connected. Regardless of income and education, the success of the individual depended upon the success of the team. There was no demarcation between the socio-economic divides. Those who had more money didn't live above the others. They patronized one another’s businesses almost exclusively, even with bigger stores in other towns.

In essence, they had created a powerful, protective social support structure insulating them against stressors of the outside world. The Rosetans were healthy because success was a community endeavor – each individual was committed to the success of the group.

However, the investigators made a prediction that the “Roseto effect” would not last.

A relatively recent (1992) study, as published in the American Journal of Public Health, confirmed this sad prediction. The officials of the AJPH examined the death records of Roseto, and again they compared them with the surrounding towns of Nazareth and Bangor.

They found no difference between the heart condition of Rosetan community and any other. They did find a direct correlation between social ties, community and belonging and heart disease death rates, resilience, and overall well-being. In the late 1970's, large-scale suburbanization swept the region. Single family homes, fenced yards, and country clubs changed the landscape and the community dynamics.

“The wearing away of intra-marriages (Italian to Italian), the careless dismantling of the social ties between family and community, the return to conspicuous consumption by wealthy Rosetans, and ignorance of common values, could be charted with precision from decade to decade.”

The Roseto Effect is a stark reminder of the power of social connectedness and the steep costs we pay without it.


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