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Community--the Secret to Longevity?

Updated: Jan 22, 2022

Community matters!

She survived the Spanish flu, Asian flu, and a bout of typhoid, making it to the grand old age of 109, but Luisa Zappitelli could never have imagined being shut in her house for a year shielding from COVID-19. She’s anxious to return to her former life: going for walks, home-breeding canaries and volunteering with the local Vespa scooter club, of which she is “godmother.” For now, she can all but wait for the vaccine that she hopes will allow her to devote herself once more to her passions.

Genetics? Diet? These things are important, but even more so is community.

Macolm Gladwell in his book Outliers (which if you haven’t read, you should buy and read) tells the story of the Italian-American town of Roseto in Pennsylvania which, for many years, preserved the ancient culture of the town’s founders, immigrants from Roseto Valfortore, which lies one hundred miles southeast of Rome, in the Apennine foothills of the Italian province of Foggia.

In Roseto, virtually no one under 55 died of a heart attack, or showed any signs of heart disease. For men over 65, the death rate from heart disease in Roseto was roughly half that of the United States as a whole. The death rate from all causes in Roseto, in fact, was something like thirty or thirty-five percent lower than it should have been.

In addition….

There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That’s it. When Wolf had dieticians analyze the typical Rosetan’s eating habits, he found that a whopping 41 percent of their calories came from fat. Nor was this a town where people got up at dawn to do yoga and run a brisk six miles. The Pennsylvanian Rosetans smoked heavily, and many were struggling with obesity.

A physician named Wolf looked at the Rosetans’ dietary and health habits.

Wolf and his colleague Bruhn found something interesting.

What Wolf slowly realized was that the secret of Roseto wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or the region where Roseto was situated. It had to be the Roseto itself. As Bruhn and Wolf walked around the town, they began to realize why. They looked at how the Rosetans visited each other, stopping to chat with each other in Italian on the street, or cooking for each other in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town’s social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2000 people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the town, that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.

Fred Blom (above) died at 116. He smoked until the COVID crisis, when he couldn't get tobacco to roll his own cigarettes. He worked as a laborer until past 80 and was self educated. His wife was more than 30 years younger and he lived --just like Luisa-- in a small black South African community. At 114, he was still active "making things".

Luisa Zapetelli is a part of a close-knit multigenerational community, too. Like Fred was, she remains active. She is still walking, although with the age of a cane. Her mind is clear. She lives at home with her family. Imagine if she were a middle class American.

If she had been an American, her kids would have grown up and moved away. She might know her next door neighbor — enough to say hello. Or maybe not. Eventually, her family would have taken whatever assets she had and put her in “care” — where average life expectancy is about 6 months. She would have died not from old age but from the real killer of the modern age — isolation and loneliness.

Too often in modern western "civilizations", families are bound by a sense of duty and social propriety. Traditional communities such as Roseta and Fred Blom's, were bound by love. That has been teh way for 35,000 years.

As I write in my book Ageing Young: You’re Never Too Old To Rock ‘N Roll, we evolved as the most social of social animals. Our brains have a unique capacity for empathy and altruism. Me=We. That means that we are more than our individual “identity”; we contain, as Whitman put it, “multitudes”.

Remove the “we” from “me”, and we are left with a black hole in our being, which sucks the life out of us. Loneliness is a greater killer than any virus.

Americans focus on the nuclear family, a concept which is only a hundred years old, and which was fashioned to enable industrial societies. Get a job. Get married. Have children. Educate them. Watch them leave. Retire. And then “get out of the way”, which means “die”. Our concept of family includes a notion of obsolescence and predicates isolation and loneliness. What we really need is community. But such “community” depends on equality and contact.

A relatively recent (1992) survey, as published in the American Journal of Public Health, confirmed this sad prediction. The officials of the AJPH, no doubt beguiled by Roseto’s fate, descended on the town yet again. Again the investigators rifled through the death records of Roseto, and again they compared them with the surrounding towns of Nazareth and Bangor. The result: the Rosetans now suffer equally from the ravages of heart disease as every other town does, in the vicinity or not. In fact, 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. Lo and behold, there is an almost perfect correlation between Americanization and heart disease death rates.

My original quote comes from a Chinese site. CGTN. Why are the Chinese interested in this story? They are under attack by Western cultures, especially America, whose basic assumptions are Hobbseian — men as nasty brutes — or perhaps by Christian beliefs that we are born in sin. Only a few make it to Heaven. And it’s Us vs Them. Where Us=US (of A).

By contrast, China is influenced by Confucius and especially Mencius, who believed the human beings are basically good.

Chinese culture emphasizes community and collectivism, even as they grapple with industrial and technological development. There is no heaven but the one you make on earth. But how to do that in a country of 1.4 billion people, with a few hundred nationalities ?

I don’t agree with the Chinese system, though. I agree with the original settlers of Roseto. I agree with Luisa and her community.

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"I the captain of a Legion of Rome have learned and pondered this truth. In life there are but two things love and power and no man can have both."

Inscription on a stone tablet found in North Africa.

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