In his bestselling book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell talked about the magical town of Roseto in eastern Pennsylvania. The town was established by a group of people who immigrated from Roseto, Italy looking for a better life in the late 1890s. When they sent word back to Italy about the exciting possibilities that existed in the U.S., more people immigrated to this new town, which they named New Roseto. The town ended up looking and feeling just like their Italian home.
The people of Roseto lived their lives insulated from the rest of the world. They spoke Italian and kept mostly to themselves, farming and working in the local slate quarry. A curious doctor noticed that town’s people under the age of sixty-five rarely suffer from heart disease, in stark contrast to the rest of the U.S. population. What made Roseto even more interesting was that it was a place where people didn’t follow the recommended healthy living guidelines yet they died from heart attacks at roughly half the rate of the rest of America. Something didn’t make sense, or did it? At first, researchers thought that the people of Roseto brought a lifestyle over from Italy, but they were wrong. The Rosetans smoked heavily, drank wine happily and didn’t follow a healthy Mediterranean diet filled with olive oil, salads, fish and chicken. Instead they ate high-fat salami, various high cholesterol cheeses, fried sausages and meatballs cooked in artery-clogging lard. Finally, Rosetans did not like to exercise. In fact, many were struggling with obesity. How could this make sense?
One theory thought to explain the town’s unique health record was genetics, which was also wrong. Rosetans who left town and lived in other parts of the United States experienced higher rates of heart disease than the people who remained in town. After exhausting all the possibilities, the researchers concluded that the reason the Rosetans could do everything wrong and still live longer than most Americans was because of Roseto itself.
The Rosetans had transferred the culture of Southern Italy to their new home in Pennsylvania and that culture was able to shield them from the pressures of everyday America. Their health was nourished by the strong family and community relationships around them. They were happy and had less stress. The Rosetans spent time sitting on their porches speaking to whoever happened to pass by. For the Rosetans, family was everything and many of the houses contained three generations of the same family. The elderly were neither institutionalized nor marginalized, they grew old with dignity and love surrounded by family. Outside the home, the people participated in an incredible number of civic organizations, they were loyal to their own local merchants. If they needed a new suit they automatically went to see “Tony the Taylor,” the same place their father and his father shopped. In Roseto it was hard to tell who was rich or poor. People who had money didn’t display their wealth, they lived like everyone else, which meant there was no urge to “Keep up with the Joneses.”
The early citizens of Roseto show us the benefits of living life with low stress and anxiety. Rosetans didn’t spend much time worrying about things because their lives were stable and predictable. They knew that there would always be a roof over their heads with food on the table and they didn’t worry about losing their job because they knew they could always find work at the local slate quarry. There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction and a zero crime rate.
This is the part that Malcolm Gladwell didn’t tell us about in his book. Maybe he just didn’t want to depress us.
Today Rosetans experience the same rates of heart disease as everyone else. Over the years Roseto became more “Americanized” less insulated and more stressed. As first generation Rosetans died, their children strayed away from the “old ways,” the strong social ties and the protection that family and community offered. The kids wanted to live the American dream of owning their own homes and living in the suburbs. Multi-generational families split up and moved into single-family homes with fenced in yards. The pursuit of wealth and materialism was in full swing. Wealthy Rosetans came out of hiding and began to flaunt their wealth by driving fancier cars. All these changes created stress, which in 1971 lead to the first person under age 45 dying of a heart attack. America had come to Roseto.
What Can We Learn From The Story Of Roseto?
The story of the Rosetans reminds us of the toll that modern life exacts from us. Roseto taught us that longevity is not just about food choices, about how much we exercise or about having favorable genes. You may have all the money you ever wanted, but without loving relationships you won’t be happy, and it’s hard to be healthy when you’re unhappy.
There is something magical about having people to talk to, who care about you and knowing they will be there for you in a time of need. That’s why we made the importance of relationships and community the first of our nine retirement principles.
It’s a sad fact that today many of us have been so busy dealing with life that we do not really know the people living around us. Many of us have lost touch with our neighbors, our community, choosing isolation which will cost us and may ultimately reduce our life spans. We need to rethink our lives and invest more time in family, friends and community like the original Rosetans, before it’s too late.