Old Order Mennonites have a significantly lower mortality rate by comparison to Ontario’s general population, according to preliminary results of a study into the group’s lifestyle habits.
Kathryn Fisher, a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton, is conducting the survey of Old Order Mennonite farmers in Waterloo Region. She hopes the data will help pin down the lifestyle causes behind afflictions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, calling this finding a critical first step in the process.
“I have spent the past few months collecting the data, building up a picture of the population and analyzing what I am seeing. What we are finding now is that there is something in that lifestyle that is an advantage to them,” said Fisher. “When we look at the number of people who have died in each age group, the numbers for Old Order Mennonites are significantly lower than other people in Ontario.”
In April, Fisher sent out a 74-question survey to 2,000 Old Order Mennonites in the area. The questions cover topics such as health problems, work, stress, community, religion and healthcare. More than 1,200 completed questionnaires were returned, a response rate over 60 per cent and far more than Fisher was expecting.
The Old Order Mennonites offer a unique opportunity to study the social and environmental factors behind chronic illness, Fisher said, because their lifestyle has changed little over the past 75 or 100 years.
“What we have seen in past literature is indications that things like smoking and drinking contribute to chronic illness. There are indications that say that the more religious you are, the healthier you are, so we want to find out if that is in fact true,” said Fisher. “Chronic illness like heart disease, cancer, arthritis and those kinds of conditions are common in our population. With the Mennonites, we can see whether lifestyle makes a difference.
This is a group that doesn’t smoke and they don’t drink so these things should emerge as lower levels of chronic illness.”
Fisher has been working on the study for the better part of the past two years. Most of that time has been spent building a relationship with the Old Order Mennonites and designing the survey with the help of the bishops and members of the community.
Currently, she is in the process of collecting similar questionnaires she sent out to non-Mennonite farmers in the survey area who will serve as a control group. By surveying people who live and work in a similar environment but lead a modern lifestyle, Fisher will be able to gauge which factors contribute most to chronic illness.
After all the survey data has been entered into a database and analyzed, Fisher intends to interview some of the Old Order Mennonites to validate the survey responses.
“Now I would like to talk to Mennonite and non-Mennonite farmers and cross-check what I am seeing in the survey,” she said. “I need to make sure that I am interpreting results correctly, to make sure that what I am seeing I am really seeing. Then our next job is to understand why that is the case. It may be a long while before we can put all the pieces together, but we are getting there.”
Fisher held a draw to motivate people to participate in the study and will be contacting the winners next week. She expects that the study will wrap up in the spring or summer of 2011, and she plans to present her findings in a public meeting for anyone interested in the results.