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Research looks at asthma risks in Amish, Hutterite farming communities

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Our environment is the farm — of every hour of nearly every day of every year. It’s passion and purpose. We hope, too, that this life is good for us. Among the ailments of concern is asthma. The good news is that frequent exposure to farm animals and the associated mircrobiomes are believed to be protective against afflictions such as asthma. The research backs that up. Studies have shown that children raised on traditional diary farms had fewer occurrences of asthma than did other kids.

But where does the environmental role stop and the genetic one take over? Both factors play a critical role in the development of asthma.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a study Thursday looking at asthma risk and farming. The research looked specifically at the Amish and Hutterite populations, with the belief that their shared European background would negate any genetic differences in their asthma risks.

Researchers examined 60 gender- and age-matched children from the communities to look at farming techniques, farm-animal exposure, and other environmental factors. The Amish population tends to veer toward traditional farming practices, whereas the Hutterites use more industrialized methods (and while the journal paper notes as part of its background information, it doesn’t go to any serious length to state the relevancy of this fact).

Allergen levels and the microbiome in homes were looked at. Patient blood was analyzed for innate or adaptive immunity. It was found that the prevalence of childhood asthmas was four times as high among the Hutterites. None of the Amish children and 20 percent of the Hutterite children had asthma symptoms despite remarkable genetic similarities.

The research drew few specific conclusions about what was found — only that the Amish environment did a better job of triggering biological protections again asthma. Commenters on the research noted that increased selenium in soils may be a factor, and that variations in vaccination rates might be in play. No comparisons or analyses were made between either of the populations and the non-farming world. Perhaps more research will be done.

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