Amish Advantage

Study Shows Clean Living May Lower Cancer Rates

When Ohio State researchers began studying a sect of Amish living in Ohio, they theorized they would find higher incidence rates of cancer, mainly because Amish religious beliefs and traditions limit contact with mainstream society, and intermarriage within their relatively small population could increase cancer-related gene mutations.

But they found just the opposite, says Judith Westman, MD, clinical director of the Division of Human Genetics in The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Westman says the Amish study suggests that clean living can lead to a healthier life.

Overall cancer rates in this population were 60 percent of the age-adjusted rate for Ohio and 56 percent of the national rate. The incidence of tobacco-related cancers among Amish adults was 37 percent of the rate for Ohio adults, and the incidence of non-tobacco-related cancer was 72 percent.

“The Amish are at an increased risk for a number of genetic disorders, but they probably have protection against many types of cancer both through their lifestyle and through genes that may reduce their susceptibility to cancer,” says Westman, who co-authored the study with Amy Ferketich, PhD, a researcher with the OSUCCC – James’ Cancer Control Program.

The study, which spanned 1996-2003 and is the first of its kind, looked at the incidence of 24 types of cancer among the Amish. Of those 24, the incidence of seven of them – cervical, laryngeal, lung, oral cavity/pharyngeal, melanoma, breast and prostate – was low enough compared with the Ohio rate to be statistically significant.

Westman and Ferketich say thel ow cancer incidence in the Ohio Amish may be partially explained by lifestyle factors such as limited tobacco and alcohol consumption, lack of sexual promiscuity, active or labor-intensive lifestyles, and proper dress for avoiding sunlight exposure when working outdoors.

Published January 2010 in Cancer Causes & Control.

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