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May 10, 2017

Why the Amish are uniquely qualified for a secondhand smoke study

The Amish: Whoopie pies, horses and buggies, and unusually appropriate sample sizes for smoking studies.

Researchers at the University of Maryland announced new findings last week about how secondhand smoke affects men differently than women. In order to conduct their research, they traveled to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to study the Amish, whose lifestyle helps eliminate other variables that can complicate similar studies.

“They live a lifestyle now that’s very similar to the lifestyle their ancestors lived many generations ago," explained Dr. Robert M. Reed, associate professor of medicine. "They have a lot of physical activity, don’t drive, and the different Amish families live more similar lifestyles than do non-Amish populations."

What's more, the Amish mainly smoke cigars and pipes, which produce more harmful forms of secondhand smoke than cigarettes. And since everyone knows everyone in the Amish community, it was easier to track who had and hadn't been exposed.

"We first asked people their own personal smoking habits, and then, because we know exactly how all the Amish are related to each other, we were able to look at the family tree and extrapolate who had been exposed,” Reed said. “We knew if Mr. X says he smoked, we can extrapolate from that that his family was exposed.”

Among those studied, only 34 percent of the men smoked, and "virtually no" women did. The researchers found that while women who were exposed to secondhand smoke had a greater risk for cardiovascular disease, men tended to have a higher body mass index.

The men exposed also had higher fasting glucose, suggesting a diabetes risk, and lower heart rates, trends that weren't seen in women. Conversely, women exposed had lower HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol), something that wasn't seen in men.

The researchers said their findings suggested more work had to be done to find the underlying mechanisms of secondhand smoking.

They also noted that considering they discovered significant health impacts of secondhand smoke despite low levels of exposure, communities with high levels of secondhand smoke should be concerned about the findings.

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