There are some 500,000 Gypsies in the United States, and when it comes to health, they are hardly the sturdy breed oft portrayed in song and story.

So report four Boston doctors -- staff members at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School -- who examined a group of 58 Gypsies ages 16 to 72 in the Boston area.

Eighty-four percent were obese, 84 percent smoked cigarettes, and their intakes of salt, sugar and fats -- especially in the form of lamb and pork -- were high.

Exercise is "not practiced," the doctors report in the British journal Lancet. "Indeed, such an attempt at personal betterment was felt to be selfish as it took time away from the family."

Also, "within Gypsy culture, obesity is equated with power, whereas to be thin is to appear weak." Children start smoking as early as age 3.

Finally, the doctors said, more than half of the group were closely related to each other. Cousins commonly marry, and the inbreeding exacerbates any genetic tendencies to disease.

The results are not surprising: high blood pressure or high blood fats or both in three fourths of the group, diabetes or blood vessel disease or both in nearly half, kidney disease in a fifth. Average life span was estimated at 55, with strokes and heart disease common.

On the plus side, the members of this closely knit society maintain the family as "the traditional center of Gypsy culture." They use alcohol, but "drunkenness was rare," and there was no alcoholism in the Boston group. Use of illicit drugs was taboo.

And despite the heavy smoking, lung cancer was rare, perhaps because of hereditary resistance to this disease, or perhaps because so many of the group died early of other causes.