Various studies: While farm kids grow up around more germs, they’re healthier than non-farm youth
May 11, 2013
Debbie Borg can count on one hand the number of combined ear infections her three children had when they were younger, and today her kids don't miss school because they're ill.
"Pretty much the only reason they're ever absent from class is because we're at horse events or other shows," said Borg, who grew up on a small acreage near Berthoud, Colo., and today is raising her family on a farm near Allen, Neb., with her husband, Terry.
Research indicates the Borgs are not alone when it comes to farming and ranching families with healthy kids.
A recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology shows that some non-farm residents are diagnosed with asthma nearly twice as much as their farming and ranching counterparts.
The results for hay fever were even more pronounced, with nearly four times as many non-farm family members diagnosed.
"Just from my own observations, I can certainly see a difference between the farm kids and the non-farm kids," said Borg, who's children today are 16, 14 and 11.
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In a culture obsessed with anti-bacterial this and that, research shows that the germs on livestock — or at least the harmless germs associated with cows, pigs and other barnyard creatures, with which humans have been living for centuries — may be one of the reasons kids in agriculture are healthier.
Research suggests that exposure to animals may help children's immune systems mature faster, with animals helping them grow antibodies to better combat infections.
Even household pets can be beneficial. A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that babies raised around dogs are 31 percent more likely to be healthy.
In addition to animals, farm kids often have vegetables or fruits growing nearby. Studies show that having even a small backyard garden means you're likely to eat five times as many vegetables, which can dramatically decrease risk of cardiovascular disease.
Also, farm kids grow up in households where dust has the greatest variety of bacteria and fungi, meaning they're much less likely to develop asthma and allergies than non-farm youth, whose homes have fewer microscopic inhabitants, says the study of 933 European children, conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine.
Certain germs and microbes can make people sick, but the human body depends on others to function — although, scientists can't explain precisely how farm germs protect against disease.
Some experts believe these studies reveal a correlation between having fewer kids living on farms today and the increase in childhood asthma rates, which have doubled in the past 30 years.
Today, about one in 10 U.S. children have asthma, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Furthermore, kids in agriculture are often physically fit, according to Borg and other parents on farms and ranches.
At the Borg family operation, they grow corn, soybeans and alfalfa, feed cattle and have horses, which means there's plenty of chores to be done around home.
"I'd say that's a big part of it, too," she said.
While Borg is a big believer in the farm-kids-equals-healthy-kids theory, she's actually an exception to it.
Borg grew up in rural Colorado surrounded by sheep — helping with her family's purebred Suffolk sheep operation, showing sheep in 4-H and earning college money by "fitting sheep" for competition — but she's battled allergies her entire life.
"I know. It doesn't make such sense," Borg said, while also noting that, "with the help of ZERTEC," she's still able to work on the farm. "But you just deal with it. You have to."
And that leads Borg to another belief about farming and ranching folks and their health.
"People in agriculture typically just tough it out," she said. "They might be sick or dealing with something else, but they're probably less likely to say anything about it, or show it." ❖