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Health survey targets lifestyle of Old Order Mennonites

A researcher studying chronic illness hopes a survey of Old Order Mennonite farmers in Waterloo Region will help pin down the lifestyle causes behind diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Kathryn Fisher, a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the study is designed to test research that suggests people should eat less processed food, get regular exercise, drink alcohol in moderation and not smoke. The existing literature also stresses the physical and mental health benefits of religion and family ties.

“[The Old Order Mennonites] live what the literature says they should do,” Fisher said. “Some aspects of that lifestyle should, if the literature is correct, benefit them. We should see less of an incidence of chronic illness in that population.”

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 health care. More than 1,000 completed questionnaires have been returned already, a response rate over 50 per cent and far more than Fisher was expecting.

Fisher has been working on the study for the past year and a half. Most of that time has been spent building a relationship with the Old Order Mennonites and designing the survey with the help of the bishop and members of the community.

The next step is to send out similar questionnaires 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 what factors contribute most to chronic illness.

Fisher sorted though municipal tax rolls to find farmers in Waterloo Region and then removed the Mennonites from that list to avoid muddying the results. That cut the numbers down significantly – eliminating fully half the names in Woolwich, for example – and she was left with 600 households.

It’s actually proven tougher to get non-Mennonite farmers to take part, Fisher observed. Without the strong community ties and the organizational system of the church, it’s more difficult to enlist their help. She plans to mail out between 1,000 and 1,200 surveys, and she needs at least 250 completed responses for the survey to be valid.

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. She expects that the study will wrap up in the spring or summer of 2011. She plans to present her findings in a public meeting for anyone interested in the results.

Fisher notes that some Mennonites have adopted modern technologies like tractors, cell phones and electricity, and there are questions in the survey to tease out those factors. Other aspects of the Old Order Mennonite lifestyle that may affect the results include education and literacy, a patriarchal society, and use of the health care system, particularly for health prevention and services regarded as non-essential.

The study isn’t intended to zero in on specific health issues, Fisher explained, but to give a broad overview of the factors involved in chronic illness. It’s a pioneering study, in a way; other health studies have focused primarily on genetics and diseases that are over-represented or under-represented in the Mennonite population.

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.

“These diseases are diseases of lifestyle and changes in lifestyle,” Fisher said. “When you look at the Old Order Mennonites, this is a lifestyle that has not changed.”

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