Living longer: The Roseto effect

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Qasim Choudhary, Missionary (in-training), Canada

How can I live longer? A timeless question, with varying theories, experiments and myths.

In Greek mythology, the fountain of youth is mentioned as having properties that could either preserve one’s youth eternally or restore youth to one who had lost it. Where one can find the source of this fountain remains a mystery. Then, we have Robert Ettinger, the father of cryonics. Cryonics involves cooling a recently deceased person to liquid nitrogen temperatures in order to keep the body preserved indefinitely. The goal of cryonics is to give future physicians a possible shot at reviving the patient.

As mythological, pseudo-scientific and even empirical scientific movements continue to explore the question of life prolongation, we can always refer to our primary guide, the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, for the ultimate truth.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his national bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, relates a mysterious phenomenon from the small, predominantly Italian borough of Pennsylvania, called Roseto.

The residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania originally migrated from Roseto Valfortore, Italy. By the early 1900s, the majority of the inhabitants of the small Italian town had resettled in America in the hope of economic betterment as promised in the New World. Not much was known about Roseto, Pennsylvania, which was its own tiny, self-sufficient world – all but unknown by the society around it – and it might well have remained so but for a physician named Dr Stewart Wolf.

Wolf lived in an era where heart attacks were an epidemic in the United States. In the 1950s, there were no cholesterol-lowering drugs or aggressive measures to prevent heart disease. It was the leading cause of death in men under the age of 65. Thus, it struck Dr Wolf as incredibly peculiar that rarely anyone from Roseto suffered from heart disease. After a thorough investigation, Dr Wolf ’s initial hunch was proven correct.

In Roseto, virtually no one under 65 had died of a heart attack or showed any sign of heart disease. Then came the challenging part – the question of “how?” Dr Wolf and a team of sociologists and medical students combed through the entire populace of Roseto only to discover further startling facts. There were no suicides, alcoholism, drug addiction, very little crime and no one was on welfare. These people were simply dying of old age.

The experts initially thought that the Rosetans abided by age old dietary practices that left them healthier than other Americans. But this was simply not true. Rather, many were struggling with obesity. It was a town where you could hardly find someone exerting themselves physically. After exhausting other theories as to why the Rosetans lived longer and did not suffer from heart conditions, Dr Wolf finally came to the conclusion already divulged to the world 1,500 years ago.

The Holy Prophetsa is narrated to have said:

“Whoever loves that he be granted more wealth and that his lease of life be prolonged, then he should keep good relations with his kith and kin.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Adab)

Dr Wolf and his colleagues walked around town and noted the town’s closeknit social structure. It was not unusual to see Rosetans stopping to converse or to gather and cook food for one another. There were many homes that consisted of three generations living under one roof, with the grandparents of these households commanding much respect.

The Rosetans were able to establish the protective social structure that they once had in southern Italy and continue it in eastern Pennsylvania. They were insulated from the pressures and expectations of the modern, capitalistic world, which allowed them to develop meaningful relationships – the ultimate cause of their good health and longevity.

The Holy Quran also states, “As to that which benefits men, it stays on the earth” (Surah al-Ra‘d Ch.13: V.18)

In these concise words, God Almighty has graciously explained that the service of others is what pleases God to grant us longer lives. As God’s very purpose of creating mankind is for us to serve one another, He desires for us to manifest love in our lives in such a way that we treat all as our kith and kin. As we do this to please Him, God extends our stay in this transient life to continue to fulfill His purpose.

In a world increasingly turning towards selfish individualism, the ongoing pandemic has stopped us in our tracks and reminded us about the adverse effects of social isolation. In fact, studies reveal that “in short, loneliness kills people.” (JT Cacioppo and LC Hawkley Perceived social isolation and cognition [2009]. Trends Cogn. Sci. 13, pp. 447-454)

Fortunately, Islam lays great emphasis on maintaining strong social ties and our innate desire to be social creatures. Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra maintains that happiness in reality is to socialise and congregate. (Khutubat-e-Mahmud, Vol. 1, p. 27, Eid Sermon delivered on 2 August 1916)

May we all experience true happiness in our lives and uphold our responsibilities towards family, friends and humanity – the key for a long and healthy life.

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