Are farm kids healthier than their city cousins, or does it just seem that way? With the incidence of childhood allergies rising in recent years, researchers are searching for answers, and increasingly, science backs up theories that farm kids stay healthier.

A report on NPR last week outlined how medical researchers are studying the differences between kids who grow up on farms versus those who grow up in cities as they work to uncover the causes behind the rise in allergies.

The report notes that doctors suspect many children today grow up in conditions that actually are too sanitary. This “hygiene hypothesis” suggests kids growing up in ultra-clean environments and spending most of their time indoors are exposed to fewer germs and allergens early in life. Farm kids on the other hand, grow up with regular exposure to dust, pollen, animals, manure and perhaps, raw milk. Thus the farm environment encourages development of a more robust immune system compared with hygienic city life.

The article cites Dr. Mark Holbreich, an Indiana allergist and fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Holbreich recently published an article in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, outlining results of a study comparing prevalence of allergies and other diseases among Indiana Amish children between six and 12 years old with that among farm and non-farm children in Switzerland. The Amish families in Indiana trace their roots to Switzerland, so the populations in the study are genetically similar.

Almost all the Amish and Swiss farm families in the study raised some type of livestock and over 90 percent of the kids in both groups spent time in barns. Among the Swiss farm kids, 87 percent drank raw milk, while just under 80 percent of the Amish kids drank milk from the farm.

The researchers found the prevalence of asthma in the Amish children was 5.2 percent compared with 6.8 percent for Swiss farm children and 11.2 percent for Swiss non-farm children. They found a similar pattern for bronchitis, with a prevalence of 14.3 percent in Amish kids, 17.7 percent among Swiss farm kids and 24.1 percent among Swiss non-farm children. Hay fever prevalence varied even more dramatically, with 0.6 percent among Amish kids, 3.1 among Swiss farm kids and 11.6 percent among Swiss non-farm kids.

The incidence of Atopy, or a disposition toward allergic sensitivity, was 7.2 percent among Amish kids and 25.2 percent and 44.2 percent among Swiss farm and non-farm children respectively.

The researchers do not speculate as to why the Indiana Amish kids have lower prevalence of these sicknesses compared with their farm-raised counterparts in Switzerland, nor do they draw conclusions regarding why farm kids seem more resistant than city kids. Maybe it is early exposure to pathogens and allergens, maybe it’s good farm cooking, or maybe it’s due to honest hard work in the great outdoors. In any case, farmers and ranchers who have always believed they are raising their kids in a healthy environment now have more evidence they’re right.

Read the article from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.