HEART ATTACK – WAS IT SOMETHING THEY ATE?
Pirkko Mononen’s father, aged 59, died of a heart attack. He was one of nine children from a farming family; seven of them died of heart attack. Pirkko’s husband, Heikki, knows how she feels. His father and mother had heart attack trouble and for both of them the third heart attack was fatal. Their case is not unusual for Pirkko and Heikki, aged 46 and 47. They live in Finland, where the death rate from heart disease used to be the highest in the world.
Not any more, though, as Scotland and Northern Ireland have taken over the lead. The Mononens took part in a novel experiment. Their blood cholesterol levels were measured. They and 29 other families in their village then swapped their diet for the fresh vegetables and low saturated fat intake of an Italian community in the south of Naples. The experiment changed their eating habits.
It was part of a long-term state programme backed by the World Health Organisation. In 1971, MPs presented a petition from local people begging the government to do something about the alarming number of middle aged men dying prematurely from heart attacks. At the start of the project, there were about 250 fatal attacks in the area each year.
Today, that number has been reduced by about 100. An initial survey had showed smoking and diet to be the key factors. Sour and salty flavours were popular, meals were large, and milk was drunk at the table instead of water, wine or beer. The Finland-Italy experiment caught people’s imagination.
Pirkko laughs when she confesses they ate no spaghetti over the six-week trial. “I prepared all kinds of Finnish traditional dishes, but I used vegetable fat instead of lard.” The couple won a free trip to Police, the village chosen for the other half of the experiment, and saw a big difference. The Italians used the fat on meat to make soap instead of eating it as they do here,” said Heikki. His cholesterol level almost halved during the trial. Now, they have switched to low-fat milk – in spite of keeping a herd of dairy cows – and grow their own vegetables.
In the last ten years, people have been cleverly persuaded not to eat high-fat food. Housewives were taught new methods of food preparation, and special ‘Long Life Parties’ were organised where families would eat together. Between 1969 and 1979, deaths among middle-aged men in the area fell by 27% .