Researchers say bacteria found in the household dust of an Amish community offers insight into preventing children from developing asthma.
A New England Journal of Medicine study examined differences in asthma rates between two isolated farming communities in Indiana—the Amish and the Hutterite. It found the latter's airborne dust triggers more breathing issues among mice.
Six Hutterite children in the study had asthma while the Amish were free of the condition. The Amish children's blood tests found more neutrophils, white blood cells that fight infections and fewer eosinophils, blood cells that promote allergic inflammation.
The rate of asthma among Amish children is about 5%, about half the U.S. average of 10%. By contrast, children who are part of the Hutterite community, which shares certain genetic, social and cultural similarities to the Amish, have an asthma rate of about 21%.
There are significant differences between the two cultures. The Amish do not use electricity, live on single-family dairy farms and ride horses. Their children are exposed to farm animals daily. The Hutterite use machinery and their children have less daily exposure to farm animals.
It's not exactly clear at this point what it is about the dust that serves as a protection from asthma. Researchers think it might have something to do with the bacteria from dairy cows that were much more abundant within the Amish house dust.
The benefits of farm living in terms of preventing allergies and asthma have been known for more than a decade. But the study identifies a root cause that could lead to new asthma treatments that mimic the Amish effect, since, as study co-author and University of Chicago professor Carole Ober puts it, “You can't put a cow in every family's house.”