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Mind-survival link emerges from death data.

An analysis of recorded deaths in California suggests that deeply held beliefs and attitudes strongly influence the survival times of people who develop most major illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, and emphysema.

"On the basis of our data, it's hard to imagine that psychosocial and psychosomatic processes don't significantly affect longevity for many life-threatening diseases," asserts David P. Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego.

Phillips and his co-workers took advantage of disease-related beliefs in traditional Chinese communities for their study. Long-standing Asian medical and astrological teaching holds that combinations of particular birth years and specific diseases prove "ill-fated."

For instance, this belief system holds that people born in a "fire" year -- which has 6 or 7 as the final digit -- fare worse than others when they develop heart conditions; birth in an "earth" year -- ending in 8 or 9 -- does not bode well for individuals with diabetes, peptic ulcers, or cancerous growths; and those born in "metal" years -- ending in 0 or 1 -- deal especially poorly with bronchitis, emphysema, or asthma.

The San Diego scientists examined California death records of 28,169 adult Chinese and 412,632 Caucasian controls, all of whom had died between 1969 and 1990. For each deceased Chinese person in the sample, the researchers generated a random group of 20 deceased controls with the same sex, year of death, cause of death, and astrologically relevant birth year.

Chinese-Americans harboring the strongest commitment to traditional beliefs display three characteristics, Phillips asserts: birth in China, residence in a large city (San Francisco or Los Angeles, in this case), and absence of an autopsy (a procedure shunned by adherents of traditional Chinese medicine).

Overall, Chinese -- but not Caucasians -- die markedly earlier if they possess an ill-fated pairing of disease and birth year, Phillips' group reports in the Nov. 6 LANCET. On average, Chinese with astrologically undesirable illnesses died from 1.3 years of 4.9 years sooner than Chinese suffering from the same diseases in the absence of an ill-fated birth year.

Ill-fated diseases produced deaths earlier among women than men and among those strongly committed to traditional beliefs, Phillips contends. For Chinese women holding a strog commitment to traditional beliefs, those who were born in an earth year and developed cancer died 3.3 years earlier than other Chinese cancer victims. If traditional Chinese women suffered from bronchitis, emphysema, or asthma and were born in a metal year, they died 8.3 years earlier than all other Chinese with the same illnesses.

Chinese longevity dropped more for acute than for chronic heart disease, suggesting that lack of exercise or poor diet played a small part in the trend, Phillips says. And the longevity decrease for lymphatic cancer far exceeded that for lung cancer, indicating that the findings do not merely reflect lung cancers brought on by cigarette smoking, he notes.

In addition, Chinese suffering from ill-fated diseases did not die abnormally young, suggesting that they were not susceptible to a variety of diseases that boost the likelihood of early death.

The new data coincide with evidence, also collected by Phillips, that death rates rise temporarily just before or after meaningful annual events, such as birthdays or religious holidays (SN: 10/10/92, p.237).

"Phillips' studies show not that you wish yourself to death, but that the course of disease is importantly influenced by your expectatiions," says David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine who has found that breast cancer patients live longer when they attend regular support group meetings (SN: 11/4/89, p.302).
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Title Annotation:beliefs and attitudes affect longevity
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 6, 1993
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