Magazine article Science News

For Some Heart Patients, Days Are Numbered

Magazine article Science News

For Some Heart Patients, Days Are Numbered

Article excerpt

The number 4 evokes dread among many Chinese and Japanese people. The reason: In the Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese tongues, the words for "four" and "death" are pronounced almost identically.

An analysis of U.S. mortality statistics over a 25-year period now raises the provocative possibility that this fear of 4 can literally scare cardiac patients to death. Chinese and Japanese deaths from heart disease rise sharply on the fourth day of each month, a pattern that doesn't occur among whites, according to a study in the Dec. 22, 2001 BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL.

A particularly high fourth-day peak in cardiac fatalities characterized Chinese and Japanese in California, where large populations of those groups with many elderly members may reinforce traditional superstitions, contends a team led by sociologist David P. Phillips of the University of California, San Diego.

Mortality data can't establish the causes of the recurring fourth-day peaks in Chinese and Japanese cardiac deaths, Phillips acknowledges. "Presently, the only explanation consistent with the findings is that psychological stress linked to the number 4 elicits additional heart-related deaths among the Chinese and Japanese," he says.

Phillips and his colleagues examined daily U.S. mortality data for nearly 210,000 Chinese and Japanese and about 47 million whites from 1973 to 1998. The scientists focused on days of the Western calendar rather than the traditional lunar calendar of Asian cultures.

First, the team calculated the average daily mortality rate in the first week of each month, when mortality for all groups is typically slightly higher than at other times. From this measure, the investigators predicted the overall mortality rate for each day of that week.

Across the country, Chinese and Japanese suffered 13 percent more cardiac deaths than expected on the fourth day of the month. …

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