In Ohio, the Amish have 60% less cancer than the general population. This is especially true for cancer caused by tobacco use (37% lower) and cancer not caused by tobacco (72% lower). Out of 24 different types of cancer, 18 of them had a lower rate of occurrence for the Amish than for the general population. Seven of these cancer types, including cervical, laryngeal, lung, oral cavity/pharyngeal, melanoma, breast, and prostate, were significantly lower.
Two previous studies of cancer incidence in the Ohio Amish found extremely low rates due to limited tobacco consumption and monogamous sexual practices. A separate study found a low prevalence of smoking and tobacco use among the Amish, which is consistent with the low rates of tobacco-related cancers observed in the present study. Cervical and laryngeal cancer were completely absent in the Ohio Amish, which is consistent with the understanding that 95-100% of these cancers are tobacco-related.
In 2004, the Surgeon General released a report which showed that tobacco use and cancer were linked. The report stated that the number of types of cancer caused by tobacco had increased since the original 1964 report. A study done with the Ohio Amish showed that if you don’t use tobacco, you can reduce the chances of getting cancer. This was also seen in two other religious groups – the Mormons of Utah and the Seventh-Day Adventists of California – which have laws against using tobacco, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity. For all three of these religious groups, the rate of cancer was lower than the national rate. For the Mormons, this was due to their lack of smoking and differences in sexual and reproductive behaviors. For the Amish, the rate of both tobacco-related and non-tobacco-related cancers was reduced.
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The rate of cancers that are not related to tobacco is lower than expected. One possible explanation is the sexual and reproductive behavior of female Amish people. Amish people usually have a lot of children, which could explain why the risk of breast cancer is only 0.58. A study by the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer found that each birth can reduce the risk of breast cancer by 7%, up to five births. In the study, the average Amish family had six children. The Utah Mormons have a similar number of children and also have a low risk of breast cancer.
Researchers are looking into whether lifestyle differences among the Amish could explain why they have lower rates of cancer. There is one study that looked at the Amish in Holmes County.
The study found that the Amish were less likely to drink alcohol, salt their food, or take vitamin supplements compared to the non-Amish people in the same area. But, other aspects of their diets were the same.
We looked at the genetic makeup of the Ohio Amish to see if it could explain why they have a low rate of cancer. We studied enough Amish families to see if cancer was caused by inherited genes, but none were found. One study showed three separate cases of Hodgkin lymphoma in an Amish family, but that was the only case we found. We think that neither dominant nor recessive inherited cancer syndromes, nor the genetic mutations associated with them, are common in the Ohio Amish.
Possible genetic mechanisms to explain the low cancer incidence include a low frequency of genetic mutations predisposing to cancer and a high frequency of genetic polymorphisms protecting against cancer. The founder population status of the Amish could lead to both situations; moreover, such polymorphisms would in all likelihood be modified substantially by other genetic polymorphisms and environmental factors and therefore difficult to detect.
Researchers believe that the Ohio Amish, due to their good recordkeeping, access to medical care, and genetic isolation, have lower rates of cancer than many other populations.
This is because their decreased use of tobacco leads to a 63% reduction in tobacco-related cancers for both males and females.
There may also be other genetic factors that protect them from developing cancer, which can be hard to find in a population that is not so genetically similar. Scientists need to do more research to figure out if there are any other lifestyle factors that could explain the low rates of cancer in the Ohio Amish.
Source: Westman, J. A., Ferketich, A. K., Kauffman, R. M., MacEachern, S. N., Wilcox, P. P., Pilarski, R. T., Nagy, R., Lemeshow, S., & Bloomfield, C. D. (2010). Low cancer incidence rates in Ohio Amish. Cancer causes & control : CCC, 21(1), 69. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10552-009-9435-7