Physical health in a Canadian Old Order Mennonite community
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INTRODUCTION: This article explores physical health and its determinants in two rural populations in Waterloo, Canada: Old Order Mennonites (OOMs) and non-OOM farmers. OOMs were selected because their distinct lifestyle might offer health benefits, and cultural homogeneity and isolation might more clearly expose the determinants shaping their health. Comparing the two Waterloo groups reduces the effect of contextual features impacting both, such as local economic conditions. The study considers a comprehensive list of determinants in order to evaluate their relative importance in shaping physical health. This information enables policy action to focus on the determinants having the greatest impact. METHODS: A survey was used to obtain information from both groups on health status and health determinants. The survey was distributed in spring-summer 2010. All members of both groups were invited to complete the survey anonymously. The physical component summary (PCS) score of the SF-12 survey was used to measure physical health status. Age-gender breakdowns of PCS scores for both groups were compared, and differences evaluated using statistical significance and the interpretation cut-off recommended by SF-12 developers. Multiple (ordinary least squares) regression was used to identify key determinants shaping health. In the regressions, PCS scores represented the (continuous) dependent variable and the determinants of health were the independent variables. RESULTS: Non-OOMs were found to experience better physical health than OOMs, with mean PCS scores of 49.24 for non-OOMs versus 47.39 for OOMs. The difference in PCS scores (1.85) was statistically significant (p=.002) and above the interpretation cut-off. While PCS score differences were significant for both genders, differences among the women were larger. OOM men and women may face health risks due to low incomes, offspring out-migrations and health service usage. OOM women may face additional risks related to reproductive health and gender role. Physical health in both groups is significantly shaped by coping, body mass index, childhood disease history and age. These determinants were more influential than factors such as social capital, sense-of-place and spirituality, which is particularly unexpected in OOMs given the strength of the social factors. CONCLUSIONS: The determinants shaping physical health in both groups (coping, body mass index, childhood disease history, age) are consistent with other studies on urban populations and people whose life circumstances vary widely. Therefore, these determinants represent targets for policy action because of their potential for widespread population health impacts. Ultimately, the fundamental health risk factors faced by small, isolated populations like OOMs appear to be common to other rural and general populations. The absence of social factors in shaping physical health in both groups differs from a number of social capital studies, and suggests there may be unique characteristics of rural or farming populations (eg high levels of self-reliance and independence). However, this could also reflect fundamental differences between physical and mental health, since other analyses show that social factors influence mental health. Understanding the absence of social factors in shaping physical health would benefit from better reconciliation of this study with others, but this is hampered by differences in health outcomes, models and measures employed across studies.
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