Amish Farm Children May Help Solve Asthma Puzzle

Do Amish farm children hold the key to preventing asthma? For some time now, the Amish have been known to have lower rates of asthma.

Image: Jim Halverson

But in a new academic paper released yesterday (New England Journal of Medicine), researchers have discovered a key difference in Amish children, who typically grow up on small family farms reliant on horsepower, and Hutterite children, who live on large mechanized farms. From the International Business Times:

The paper, published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, studied 60 children of school-going age, 30 from the Amish community in Middlebury, Indiana and 30 from the Hutterite colony near Mitchell in South Dakota.

Researchers found no cases of asthma in Amish children and six cases among Hutterite children. They ran blood tests which confirmed that children from the two communities had similar genetic profiles. However, Amish children had more neutrophils, a kind of white blood cells that are important in fighting infections. Researchers also found that Amish children had younger white blood cells indicating that constant exposure to germs stimulated their immune system to produce more cells. Both groups had the same number of monocytes, another kind of white blood cells.

“This was a phenomenal difference,” Anne Sperling, the study’s co-author and immunologist at the University of Chicago reportedly said. “We were blown away.”

A second piece of the study reveals that house dust collected from Amish homes and that from Hutterite dwellings also differs, with Amish house dust having no effect on mice “sensitized to develop asthma symptoms.” On the other hand, Hutterite house dust caused the mice swollen air passages and breathing difficulties.

What are the implications of the study? Does this mean an asthma cure is at hand? From the Los Angeles Times:

Overall, the experiments help explain why farm life is associated with a reduced risk of asthma, Harvard immunologist Dr. Talal Chatila wrote in an editorial that accompanies the study.

But other questions remain, he wrote. For instance, it’s not clear whether kids have to maintain their exposure to farm animals to keep asthma at bay. Some protection may even occur before birth, by prompting epigenetic changes in utero.

Carol Ober, an expert on human genetics at the University of Chicago who worked on the study, acknowledged that more work is needed to translate these findings into asthma-fighting therapies.

“You can’t put a cow in every family’s house,” she said in a statement. “But we may be able to protect children from asthma by finding a way to re-create the time-tested Amish experience.”

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    21 Comments

    1. Lots of Things Missing

      Having cows around is one thing. But how about playing outside ALL DAY LONG, in summer verses sitting indoors watching the tube or playing video games.

      How about riding in pony carts? Making the dirt your playground?

      Amish kids do lots of things that other kids do not. Cows is just a portion of the larger picture.

      My two cents.

      1. Muckraker

        Hutterite children do those things too and don’t sit inside all day watching TV or playing video games – at least not more than Amish children do.

    2. Cyndi

      Two very different states might produce two very different results!

      While many of the findings may very well be accurate, I have to wonder if the same results would have be seen if they actually tested in the same area (or at the very least, the same state). Weather conditions and what is grown and mechanically produced are VERY different in both states.

    3. Ethan Tudor W.

      I'll tell you why it works, it's simple really...

      The Amish drink un pasteurized Milk, naturally an Asthma deterrent, also, the lifestyle exposes many Amish children to “Many” bugs that our “Normal” society can’t fight due to over vaccination. As a teenager that left the Amish for Hollywood many years ago, I’m healthier than many of my peers and counter parts here in Hollywood. It’s a fact guy’s.

      1. Muckraker

        Hutterites (at least ones I’ve been around) drink raw milk too. And lots of people where I live drink raw milk but have normal asthma type problems.

    4. MaryAnn Pepe

      Interesting!

      It’s so amazing when scientists come across new answers to common questions? I wonder what the difference between Amish and English dust is???

    5. Judith

      Genetics

      I think that exposure to certain organisms could boost immunity – but I wonder if they studied the genes involved in contracting asthma (which has been proven to genetically run in families) – this makes me think that the genetics of the Amish missed that one ancestor from Moravia who had that asthma gene. The Hutterites must be genetically related to that Moravian ancestor.

      Did they study the Amish who live on farms and the Amish who did not? Was there any difference?

      So to say it all boils down to living on a farm would be empirically incorrect since there are genetic factors involved in developing asthma.

      I sometimes wonder about these studies. But interesting findings nonetheless.

      1. Muckraker

        Lots of ethnic groups develop asthma and Hutterited and Amish are particularly closely related anyway. Descendants of Amish who don’t live an Amish lifestyle get asthma at more typical rates. Read the study – it’s not a genetic thing and they took measures to prove that

    6. Dan H.

      @ David Arment:

      “But how about playing outside ALL DAY LONG, in summer verses sitting indoors watching the tube or playing video games.

      How about riding in pony carts? Making the dirt your playground?”

      I recently visited both Amish and Hutterite communities in the US for about two month. Both Amissh and Hutterite children play ouside all day long, very often barefoot, and both make the dirt their playground.

      This to me seem not to be the difference.

      By the way, in Soutn Dakota, Minnesota and Missouri there are both Hutterite and Amish settlements, not so far from each other. For a new study this might be better.

    7. Dan H.

      At Elmendorf Hutterite Colony there are some families with their children of Amish background, that is Amish families, who joined the Hutterites.

      These children would be perfect to see if it is the Hutterite environment of modern agriculture or the Amish genetic heritage, that makes the difference.

    8. Dan H.

      Elmendorf Hutterite Colony is also called Elmendorf Christian Community.

    9. Debbie H

      Germs

      My husband said for years that we over sterilize our environment. He grew up on a small farm in Kentucky, no running water or indoor plumbing. He never wore shoes in the summer or worried about germs in the creek when swimming. He was never sick the whole time I knew him. I believe that children today do not get a chance to build immunity. Even the CDC has said we over use antibiotics.

      1. Muckraker

        The whole point of this is that Hutterites do all that stuff too (being barefoot, playing outside) – they are trying to find what the difference actually is.

    10. Laura

      Outdoor exposure

      I spent the first four years of my life in India, where I was even allowed as a toddler to play in mud puddles and regularly played outdoors. Then when my family returned to the US, I spent my childhood outdoors as well, plus we did a lot of camping through the Rockies. I’ve always been very healthy, and I have long credited my childhood exposure to such a variety of germs with my health.

      Interestingly, when I was born, the hospital in India insisted I stay in the room with my mother to avoid exposure to germs I couldn’t handle. That was probably the only time in my childhood that I was protected from that exposure!

      I suspect that, like my childhood exposed to everything that came down the pike, Amish children also benefit from their non-overly-sterilized environment. What I find intriguing is that Hutterite children don’t have the same benefit. There must be some factor at work that hasn’t yet been accounted for.

    11. Judith

      Genetics

      There was an article about the 150 different genetic-caused diseases that the Amish people are, unfortunately, prone to in the Washington Post, here’s the link…

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/pennsylvania-clinic-treats-genetic-disorders-in-amish-and-mennonite-people/2014/10/20/941b4e34-53bc-11e4-809b-8cc0a295c773_story.html

      Asthma is not one of them. And I think for researchers, that information couple with the information in this study above, should show that – regardless of growing up on a farm or not, asthma runs in families, in generations. Perhaps that gene is switched on due to an environmental presence. But to purposely expose children to bacteria seems a bit reckless at best.

      No doubt, exposure to certain “life” on this planet, viral or bacterial does, in fact, cause immunity. Hence the vaccine. But one must be so careful about the quantity, whether the virus is dead or alive, etc. etc..

      I’m sure these researchers know this. And are probably turning their sites on the genetic component of this disease which is so prevalent in our society today.

      Just like the Amish are susceptible to these 150 diseases – they are conversely immune, no doubt, to just as many, if not more other diseases – all because they have been intermarrying for centuries. It presents a sad problem for the Amish, as a People. I hope that someday, some Amish might acquire mild cases of asthma (hear me out) because that will mean that they will then have immunity genetically against those 150 other diseases that they now suffer from tremendously.

      1. Muckraker

        I’m not sure where you get the idea asthma is genetic (it isn’t) but many descendants of Amish have asthma at normal rates. And if Amish start getting asthma that doesn’t cure all the other genetically based diseases they are prone to…

        1. Judith

          Asthma is genetically related.

          Hi Muckraker – I got my information regarding the genetic relation to asthma from the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO has a PDF regarding exactly the genetic component coupled with rural living. Here it is:

          http://www.who.int/genomics/about/Asthma.pdf

          There are also other studies if you google asthma and genome, or asthma and genetics. It is well known that asthma hails from certain regions of Europe from a genetic standpoint.

    12. HEALTHY FARM CHILDREN

      Good for all you Amish parents and children! I have a deep love and respect for your lifestyle.
      Some alternative physicians claim to have put asthma on the run with adequate hydration. And I believe the agrarian lifestyle leads to Biblical health:
      1. Grow up on a farm–whether Amish or ‘other’–with all the hair dander, and yes, even some germs wafting from the horse and cow lot. We farm children were clean, but not sterile… and indeed, the raw milk is a huge plus. “If G-d made it for food and man hasn’t messed with it,” It’s on my bill of fare! (…Borrowed from my mentors of 40 plus years if wellness study. Desperately ill in 1974 – that philosophy has made me well, and kept me so, at 83 years of age!)
      2. Farm life lends itself to good use of the body our Father designed… Digging postholes, seed-time and harvest, and working a team beat man-made exercise machines in my book!
      3. With a farm lifestyle, our constant companion is the water jug… we must drink enough water to keep all our “filter systems” working. Dr. Fereydoon Batmanghelidj says in “The Water Cure,”: “Water is the basis of all life and that includes your body. Your muscles that move your body are 75% water; your blood that transport nutrients is 82% water; your lungs that provide your oxygen are 90% water; your brain that is the control center of your body is 76% water; even your bones are 25% water….Our health is truly dependent on the quality and quantity of the water we drink…”
      My Rule of Thumb, is take half my body weight and drink that many ounces of (filtered) water I need daily for maintenance.
      Blessings and Shalom, Betty

    13. Suzanne

      What about vaccinations

      Vaccinations are not routinely adopted in the Amish community are they? I believe childhood vaccination is a culprit in this disease…. Same with the extremely low autism rates ( is there any at all?) in these communities. So wouldn’t that explain the lack of asthma? Does anyone know if that has been studied?

      1. Emerald Appleby, CD(DONA), LCCE

        No studies support that

        There are no well done peer reviewed studies to support the belief that vaccines cause asthma. Be very careful when reading opion pieces on line, and beware of bad research. No peer reviewed research, that has proven its results by third party researchers, says that asthma is cause by vaccines.

    14. Lisa

      healthy living

      It is not just the genetics that contribute, nor is it exposure to germs at an early age. It is also the non GMO food sources and natural / non sterilized water that effects the natural immunity development. You can’t pick just one thing, it is the combination of elements that affect the level of immunity.