Asthma, Allergies and the Amish

House dust in Amish households might protect children from developing asthma.

The Amish are members of a religious sect that live differently from most Americans. Something in that different lifestyle may be helping to make a difference in their children’s health.

Researchers from the University of Chicago compared Amish and Hutterite farming communities in South Dakota to determine if lifestyle could affect children’s risk of allergic asthma. They found that Amish children were better protected than Hutterite children.

The Amish and Hutterites immigrated from Germany to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are similar genetically and have similar farming lifestyles and customs, such as no television and large families. Both groups get childhood vaccinations, breastfeed their children, drink raw milk and do not allow indoor pets.

However, the Amish rely on traditional methods and use horses for transportation and field work. Most Amish live on small, single-family farms. Hutterites live on large, communal farms and use modern farm machinery. Amish children have much more exposure to farm animals than Hutterite children.

Previous research showed that children who grew up on a farm were less likely to develop asthma than those who were raised in a city. The current study, however, indicates that the more modern type of farm offers less protection than the old-fashioned kind.

“It shows that the source of protection is not simply farming, and has narrowed in on what the specific protection might be,” study co-author Carole Ober, PhD, said in a press release. “We also clearly show, in humans and in mice, that this protection requires engagement of the innate immune system.”

Dr. Ober is professor and chairman of human genetics at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Ober and colleagues found that substances in the house dust of the Amish homes were able to shape the immune system to decrease the kinds of responses that can result in allergic asthma.

The researchers also found a striking difference in asthma prevalence between the two groups. About five percent of Amish children between the ages of six and 14 have asthma. Among Hutterite children, the prevalence of asthma is 21.3 percent.
Nationwide, the asthma prevalence among children aged five to 14 is 10.3 percent.

The researchers found that dust from Amish homes had more microbial products (bacteria and byproducts).

“Neither the Amish nor the Hutterites have dirty homes,” Ober explained. “Both are tidy. The Amish barns, however, are much closer to their homes. Their children run in and out of them, often barefoot, all day long. There’s no obvious dirt in the Amish homes, no lapse of cleanliness. It’s just in the air, and in the dust.”

The study was published in the June issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health, St. Vincent Foundation, and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Foundation.

None of the authors reported a relevant conflict of interest.

University of Chicago Medical Center, “Growing up on an Amish farm protects children against asthma by reprogramming immune cells”

New England Journal of Medicine, “Innate Immunity and Asthma Risk in Amish and Hutterite Farm Children”

Written by: Beth Greenwood, RN | Medically reviewed by: Dr. Robert Carlson, M.D.