Amish populations have higher incidences of particular genetic disorders, including dwarfism (Ellis–van Creveld syndrome),Angelman Syndrome, and various metabolic disorders, as well as an unusual distribution of blood types. Amish represent a collection of different demes or genetically closed communities. Since almost all Amish descend from about 200 18th-century founders, genetic disorders that come out due to inbreeding exist in more isolated districts (an example of the founder effect). Some of these disorders are quite rare, or unique, and are serious enough to increase the mortality rate among Amish children. The majority of Amish accept these as “Gottes Wille” (God’s will); they reject use of preventive genetic tests prior to marriage and genetic testing of unborn children to discover genetic disorders. However, Amish are willing to participate in studies of genetic diseases. Their extensive family histories are useful to researchers investigating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and macular degeneration.
An Amish woman and three children, on a path to a house and six wooden farm buildings, past some farm equipment.
An Amish farm near Morristown in New York State.
While the Amish are at an increased risk for some genetic disorders, researchers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center—Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC-James) have found their tendency for clean living can lead to better health. Overall cancer rates in the Amish are 60 percent of the age-adjusted rate for Ohio and 56 percent of the national rate. Tobacco-related cancers in Amish adults are 37 percent and non-tobacco-related cancers are 72 percent of the rate for Ohio adults. The Amish are protected against many types of cancer both through their lifestyle—there is very little tobacco or alcohol use and limited sexual partners—and through genes that may reduce their susceptibility to cancer. Dr. Judith Westman, director of human genetics at OSUCCC-James, conducted the study. The findings were reported in a recent issue of the journal Cancer Causes & Control. Even skin cancer rates are lower for Amish, despite the fact many Amish make their living working outdoors where they are exposed to sunlight and UV rays. They are typically covered and dressed to work in the sun by wearing wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves which protect their skin.
The Amish are conscious of the advantages of exogamy. A common bloodline in one community will often be absent in another, and genetic disorders can be avoided by choosing spouses from unrelated communities. For example, the founding families of the Lancaster County Amish are unrelated to the founders of the Perth County, Ontario Amish community. Because of a smaller gene pool, some groups have increased incidences of certain inheritable conditions.
The Old Order Amish do not typically carry private commercial health insurance. About two-thirds of the Amish in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County participate in Church Aid, an informal self-insurance plan for helping members with catastrophic medical expenses. A handful of American hospitals, starting in the mid-1990s, created special outreach programs to assist the Amish. The first of these programs was instituted at the Susquehanna Health System in central Pennsylvania by James Huebert. This program has earned national media attention in the United States, and has spread to several surrounding hospitals. Treating genetic problems is the mission of Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, which has developed effective treatments for such problems as maple syrup urine disease, a previously fatal disease. The clinic is embraced by most Amish, ending the need for parents to leave the community to receive proper care for their children, an action that might result in shunning.
DDC Clinic for Special Needs Children, located in Middlefield, Ohio, has been treating special-needs children with inherited or metabolic disorders since May 2002. The DDC Clinic provides treatment, research, and educational services to Amish and non-Amish children and their families.
Although not forbidden or thought of as immoral, most Amish do not practice any form of birth control. They are against abortion and also find “artificial insemination, genetics, eugenics, and stem cell research” to be “inconsistent with Amish values and beliefs”.
People’s Helpers is an Amish-organized network of mental health caregivers who help families dealing with mental illness and recommend professional counselors. Suicide rates for the Amish of Lancaster County were 5.5 per 100,000 in 1980, about half that of the general population.