The Japanese X-Factor

Jun
26
2009
by
Lynne McTaggart
/
13
Comments

In the 1960s, Len Syme, the first sociologist to land a job in the U. S. Department of Health, suspected that social factors had a bearing on certain diseases believed only to have dietary or environmental causes, such as heart disease, cancer or arthritis.
In one of his early attempts to tease out why rates of cardiovascular disease varied in numerous U. S. states, Syme found that the ‘culturally mobile’, as he began to call them — those who’d moved geographically from one societal culture to something quite different, particularly those who’d moved from farms to white collar city jobs – went on to get heart disease. This connection prevailed even when he’d eliminated other factors, such as smoking, blood pressure and all the other supposed major risk factors of cardiovascular disease. Social mobility – moving outside society as you knew it – made you ill.
At the School of Public Health at Berkeley, Syme teamed up with Reuell Stallones, another of Berkeley’s professors, to test his migration hypothesis with the perfect population: the Japanese who’d migrated to Hawaii and California.
The Japanese paradox
As a race, the Japanese fascinate any student of epidemiology because they are such an apparent paradox: they have the lowest heart disease in the world, despite the fact that smoking — one of the biggest risk factors of heart disease — is virtually universal.
Japan’s longevity statistics confound all our expectations about what is required to live a long and healthy life. In fact, Japan produces the world’s largest number of centenarians: almost 18,000 people live to 100 — many of them smokers.
Epidemiologists find transplanted societies particularly instructive, as they afford an opportunity to examine just how a particular community fares when confronted with profound social, cultural or dietary upheaval.
Syme and Stallones examined heart disease risk, plus dietary factors and any social change in a pool of 12,000 men, divided up among those who lived in Japan and two groups that had emigrated to Hawaii or northern California.
Stallones was interested in whether the Japanese had low rates of heart disease because of their low-fat diet, and whether heart disease went up when the Japanese, who maintain an excellent low-fat diet in their home country adopt a typical burger-and-fries American diet, but Syme was interested in the social factor: whether moving countries and cultures was so destabilizing that it caused heart disease.
The results confounded both their expectations. The Japanese men migrating to California had five times the heart disease of those in Japan, while the heart-disease levels in Hawaii were midway between the two, so simply migrating somewhere else didn’t automatically cause disease.
Nevertheless, the results appeared to be completely independent of any of the usual supposed risk factors of heart disease, like smoking, high blood pressure, diet or cholesterol count; in fact, the Japanese population studied contained the highest number of smokers, but the lowest levels of heart disease.
Amazingly enough, their results also appeared independent of any dietary changes. Whatever the Japanese ate — whether tofu or a Big Mac — had no bearing whatever on their propensity to heart disease.
Although changes in the dietary habits made no difference in terms of heart disease, the kind of society the transplants created for themselves did. Those Japanese men who’d adopted American cultural ways suffered the increase in heart disease, while those who’d retained their traditional culture had the lowest levels of heart disease — comparable to Japanese men back home.
The most traditional group of the Japanese Americans had a heart attack rate as low as their fellow Japanese living in Japan, while those who’d adopted the Western go-ahead lifestyle increased their heart attack incidence by three to five times. These differences could not be accounted for by any of the usual risk factors. Those with social networks and social support were protect against heart disease — regardless of whether they smoked or suffer from high blood pressure.
In search of the x-factor
Syme was intrigued enough by these results to travel to Japan in search of the missing x-factor of impregnable health. He interviewed scores of the Japanese to find out the single factor that most distinguished the social fabric of America from that of Japan.
What most marked their culture from that of America, his interviewees repeated in interview after interview, was that Americans were lonely. Anyone could see that. Americans even walked on the street alone.
The Japanese, particularly in southern Japan, maintained tight-knit social groups that were mutually supportive, as was the work environment. Joining a business is not unlike marrying into a family; it is, in most instances, a relationship for life.
In southern Japan, the Japanese even create ‘moai’, a kind of life-long social and financial safety net made up by the contributions of your friends and loved ones.
The heart attack rates of the Californian Japanese-Americans had nothing to do with moving from Japan, but everything to do with losing the close social ties that proved to be Japan’s secret weapon in staying healthy.
In the 1960s, Len Syme, the first sociologist to land a job in the U. S. Department of Health, suspected that social factors had a bearing on certain diseases believed only to have dietary or environmental causes, such as heart disease, cancer or arthritis.
In one of his early attempts to tease out why rates of cardiovascular disease varied in numerous U. S. states, Syme found that the ‘culturally mobile’, as he began to call them — those who’d moved geographically from one societal culture to something quite different, particularly those who’d moved from farms to white collar city jobs – went on to get heart disease. This connection prevailed even when he’d eliminated other factors, such as smoking, blood pressure and all the other supposed major risk factors of cardiovascular disease. Social mobility – moving outside society as you knew it – made you ill.
At the School of Public Health at Berkeley, Syme teamed up with Reuell Stallones, another of Berkeley’s professors, to test his migration hypothesis with the perfect population: the Japanese who’d migrated to Hawaii and California.
The Japanese paradox
As a race, the Japanese fascinate any student of epidemiology because they are such an apparent paradox: they have the lowest heart disease in the world, despite the fact that smoking — one of the biggest risk factors of heart disease — is virtually universal.
Japan’s longevity statistics confound all our expectations about what is required to live a long and healthy life. In fact, Japan produces the world’s largest number of centenarians: almost 18,000 people live to 100 — many of them smokers.
Epidemiologists find transplanted societies particularly instructive, as they afford an opportunity to examine just how a particular community fares when confronted with profound social, cultural or dietary upheaval.
Syme and Stallones examined heart disease risk, plus dietary factors and any social change in a pool of 12,000 men, divided up among those who lived in Japan and two groups that had emigrated to Hawaii or northern California.
Stallones was interested in whether the Japanese had low rates of heart disease because of their low-fat diet, and whether heart disease went up when the Japanese, who maintain an excellent low-fat diet in their home country adopt a typical burger-and-fries American diet, but Syme was interested in the social factor: whether moving countries and cultures was so destabilizing that it caused heart disease.
The results confounded both their expectations. The Japanese men migrating to California had five times the heart disease of those in Japan, while the heart-disease levels in Hawaii were midway between the two, so simply migrating somewhere else didn’t automatically cause disease.
Nevertheless, the results appeared to be completely independent of any of the usual supposed risk factors of heart disease, like smoking, high blood pressure, diet or cholesterol count; in fact, the Japanese population studied contained the highest number of smokers, but the lowest levels of heart disease.
Amazingly enough, their results also appeared independent of any dietary changes. Whatever the Japanese ate — whether tofu or a Big Mac — had no bearing whatever on their propensity to heart disease.
Although changes in the dietary habits made no difference in terms of heart disease, the kind of society the transplants created for themselves did. Those Japanese men who’d adopted American cultural ways suffered the increase in heart disease, while those who’d retained their traditional culture had the lowest levels of heart disease — comparable to Japanese men back home.
The most traditional group of the Japanese Americans had a heart attack rate as low as their fellow Japanese living in Japan, while those who’d adopted the Western go-ahead lifestyle increased their heart attack incidence by three to five times. These differences could not be accounted for by any of the usual risk factors. Those with social networks and social support were protect against heart disease — regardless of whether they smoked or suffer from high blood pressure.
In search of the x-factor
Syme was intrigued enough by these results to travel to Japan in search of the missing x-factor of impregnable health. He interviewed scores of the Japanese to find out the single factor that most distinguished the social fabric of America from that of Japan.
What most marked their culture from that of America, his interviewees repeated in interview after interview, was that Americans were lonely. Anyone could see that. Americans even walked on the street alone.
The Japanese, particularly in southern Japan, maintained tight-knit social groups that were mutually supportive, as was the work environment. Joining a business is not unlike marrying into a family; it is, in most instances, a relationship for life.
In southern Japan, the Japanese even create ‘moai’, a kind of life-long social and financial safety net made up by the contributions of your friends and loved ones.
The heart attack rates of the Californian Japanese-Americans had nothing to do with moving from Japan, but everything to do with losing the close social ties that proved to be Japan’s secret weapon in staying healthy.

Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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13 comments on “The Japanese X-Factor”

  1. 😀 Great! I really love this confirmation of what I feel and know inside as the 'truth', our strong rejection of smoking is not necessary. I always say, smoke with all your pleasure and attention. Enjoy with all you are. With all that enjoyment there can not be 'badness', dis-ease. It does mean we stop smoking unconscious which is smoking out of a habbit when we feel nervious, fear or any feeling we do not like. Or feeling uncomfortable with a situation like a gathering or a party. Cover up smoking. The addiction feelings leave also with conscious joyous smoking. Enjoy, stop feeling guilty or wrong. Face and feel all your feelings, be aware of your thoughts and be a happy smoker, eater, drinker, being!
    Love,
    Anita.

  2. good article, I would like to know the rates for people who moved to the city to the countryside, as I would suspect the cultural change may have a positive or negative effect, depending on the direction. I myself moved from big stress cities to small city to eventually the French countryside and have found my level of enjoyment of life astounding. I think the stress of the inner-city may have more to do with dis-ease than most all other factors combined.

  3. This makes so much sense and fits with other studies that have found the number of quality friends (support) one has, the less likely they are to be sick. Our society in America doesn't value this support network and family as much as other countries do. I feel lucky to have a great support system and can't remember the last time I was sick. Thanks for this post.

  4. Going even deeper, what is that a person finds fulfilling in a social network that makes him/her more immune to disorders? Its the feeling of being recognized, attended and more than anything else, being loved. Being in a group absorbs and relieves some of the daily stress, worries and anxieties which otherwise would bottle up if the person doesn't find an avenue to vent it out.
    The industrialized society puts so much pressure on delivering output, the mindset is focused on external activities, does not find a scope to go inwards and observe emotional aspects. If a person is aware, he/she can perform some sort of spiritual activity to go within and release the emotional baggage which otherwise get accumulated and cause diseases later. Once toxic emotions are released one can reach the underlying peace and love within.
    Love is unquestionably the primary factor in transmuting the diseases, which are all mental faculties in the first place. Lack of love leads to overeating, watching excessive TV, constantly regretting on the past and worrying about the future. All those actions are futile attempts to substitute love.
    Healing can happen fast if we radiate that feeling of love and light to the target person and assure "I am with you" warmness.

  5. I concur with Valerie. The article has been entered twice. The second half begins with the words, "In the 1960s, Len Syme, the first sociologist....." If this was done by mistake, it would have been very interesting to have continued the article into further explanation of the issues already introduced in the first half instead of this iteration.

  6. Thank you for bringing this information forward again, our Western society tends to ignore this type of data - ..........it is so profound!

  7. Recognizing that we are all connected has been the most intrigueing aspect of our relationship with one anotherwith one another, realizing that the same Creator qualities reside within each other will allow us to undertake all factors of life affirming energy...LOVE...Let's all be healthy within and sahre without...
    hector

  8. Stress again seems to be the factor, and what is stressful to one isn't necessarily stressful to another. How one deals with the stress is important, especially how one deals with it internally. This seems to point to emotional intelligence. Hmmmh...health researchers ought to look at how emotional intelligence influences overall physical health.
    Christine Hoeflich

  9. Syme's results correlate with the British findings with babies and the advantages of touching and holding. Also with the negative consequences of the practices of Romanian orphanages. As long as we're in the mind-body-spirit configuration this wisdom holds! And what of socialization in the afterlife? It would seem that the same rule must hold. We are social beings, united in the One.

  10. Many of the answers to dis-ease can be found in our language. There is much truth in the expression "losing heart". In a similar vein Our "liver" and "Pancreas (world creator)" relate to our willingness to continue to live and create our reality.
    With regard to smoking, when I finally was able to quit, at an EST six day event, I discovered that what made it so difficult to quit was that I had become a very shallow breather. The only time I took a deep drag of oxygen was when a took a drag on a cigarette. This habit of shallow breathing is all due to fear. Not necessarily something special but just accumulated worry, discomfort and self consciousness. There are only two things going on with us. It is all either love or fear. Dinesh (comment above) says it beautifully.
    Marilyn

  11. This is similar to the study done years ago of the Italian village that left Italy and set up town somewhere in Pennsylvania. It's noted in a couple of books I've read, one of them being Malcolm Gladwell's latest book. The Italians, too, are very community-oriented and the results of the study were basically the same as that noted in Lynne's Blog on the Japanese. I'm not sure why America has lost it's way. I yearn for the June & Ward Cleaver days. Now when you ask if you can help someone, they look at you like you're from Mars! I think I need to move again...preferably to a more family/friend-oriented society, not the corporate society.

  12. another interesting issue related to smoking : tobacco is sacred to native american culture. the deva of the plant can carry prayers to great spirit. few people would want the thoughts they are thinking and the energy they are projecting while puffing on a cigarette to be carried as a prayer to heaven....but they are ! you reap what you sow...

Why wait any longer when you’ve already been waiting your entire life?

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