As the number of people with asthma in the United States continues to grow, a new study's findings could have the important answers we're looking for in terms of what's causing the incurable chronic lung disease and how we can possibly stop it.
The study, published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that exposure to farm animals and the microbes these animals carry can protect children from asthma. While researchers aren't sure exactly how or why yet, the results are promising and pretty groundbreaking.
Here's what they did.
Researchers compared an Amish community in Indiana and a Hutterite community in South Dakota. Both are relatively isolated farming communities with similar cultural traditions. They shun TV and computers, moms practice extended breastfeeding, families are large and there's not much air pollution, just to name a few similarities. Both groups also have similar diets and similar genetic backgrounds; they descended from people who came to the U.S. from Europe in the 1800s, looking to practice their Anabaptist faith.
But there are two major differences.
One difference is their farming methods. The Amish run their own small dairy farms per family, children play in the barns and they don't use electricity. Instead, the Amish use horses for plowing and transportation. In contrast, the Hutterites have large communal farms with modern industrial equipment and the kids don't tend to play in the barns.
The second huge difference that researchers noticed is that the rate of asthma is much higher in Hutterite children than Amish children. Six of the 30 Hutterite kids studied had asthma, while zero of the 30 Amish kids studied had asthma. Actually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 5.2 percent of Amish kids have asthma, which is a huge difference when compared to the nationwide stat that 13.5 percent of children have been diagnosed with asthma (and 8.6 percent still have it). To give you a wider perspective: 25 million people in the U.S. are known to have asthma, of which about 7 million are children.
So it's a pretty widespread and pressing issue. But what makes the Amish kids so innately immune?
Scientists aren't 100 percent sure yet, but this study provides some huge clues.
In studying the Amish and Hutterite children, ages 7 to 14, researchers looked at the immune cells in the kids' blood. They also collected a small amount of dust from 10 houses in each group.
They noticed that the blood samples of Amish kids had higher levels of immune cells (neutrophils) that help the body's innate immune response and play a role in reducing the risk of asthma. Here's the super cool part: When they exposed Amish house dust to mice, the mice didn't get asthma when they were later exposed to things that would normally trigger the condition, but the dust from Hutterite homes did not protect mice from asthma.
So you could say that the Amish farm life isn't something to dust off. Because literally, there's something in the dust.
While scientists aren't sure what types of bacteria or fungi are at play here, the microbes show that cleanliness isn't always the most beneficial. Instead, thanks to the Amish kids' early exposure to family dairy farms and farm animals, the community continues to have low rates of asthma—something we can hopefully recreate nationwide (there are even talks of developing a spray).