The Amish in Ohio are the largest such community in the country, and, among other things, have lower rates of cancer than their fellow citizens. Much lower as a matter of fact: 40% lower overall, and 30% lower if you remove tobacco from the equation. (Oh, that we could.)
So it seems the Amish can teach us a lot about the environmental and genetic contributions to the development of cancer. But what clues do we have that can inform these important lessons? They most certainly will not be found in their diet! If nothing else, the Amish are a pork and butter people. They also love sugar and use it lavishly. I have an Amish cookbook in my collection. It contains my favorite recipe for apple pie. The ingredients include butter, lard, and plenty of sugar … and a little more butter. I can only make the recipe once a year – for Thanksgiving – and then can only manage, in good conscience, to eat the smallest slice as my portion. Alas, my taste buds have become slaves of my frontal cortex.
The risk for breast cancer in Amish women is only 58% of the risk observed for other women living in Ohio. This statistic was obtained by a study published in the journal, “Cancer Causes and Control” in September, 2009. The findings of these investigators from Ohio State University were similar to studies carried out in other close religious communities: the Mormons of Utah, and the Seventh Day Adventists of California. The cultural proscriptions on tobacco, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity appear to be the common threads among these people – for their genetic differences do not seem to be a common denominator that can explain the lowered risk for cancer.
Do I dare indulge my taste for perfect Amish apple pie more often? Perhaps not – for a diet high in saturated fat and sugar predisposes to other diseases, like heart and diabetes. Darn. Their pie is so good!
As for what the Amish can teach us about breast cancer, we need to better understand the role of tobacco and alcohol as risk factors. And since the Amish tend to have larger families overall, there is the additional question of birth control to consider. Do they use it? As often? Do they use oral contraceptives at the same rate as other women in Ohio, or at the same age? Is the use of hormone replacement therapy less in Amish women than others? These are good questions, but I wonder who will fund a study to answer them. Certainly not the pharmaceutical companies or organizations they support.
It’s a good start to know that there are several populations in the country with a significantly lower risk for breast cancer. Now that we know who they are, we need to go back and find out why. I think they can teach us a lot … if we care to learn.
C. Bloomfield, “Low cancer incidence rates in Ohio Amish.” Cancer Causes Control, 9 September 2009.