Monday, May 18, 2009

Potential of Prevention: Asian Americans, Western Culture, and Sun Exposure

A new study this week out of Stanford University found that the more acculturated Asian Americans are, the more likely they are to practice unhealthy patterns of sun exposure (study).

Surveying close to 550 individuals of Asian decent living in northern California, the researchers found that those from families who have been in the US longer, or have lived half or more of their lives in the United States, were much more likely to sunbathe and to prize darker skin than those who lived less time in the US or spent most of their lives in Asia. Strikingly, nearly 60 percent of those raised at least half of their lives in the United States reported that they had practiced sunbathing, whereas only 34 percent of those raised largely in Asia said they did so. Attitudes about safe-sun practices (like using sunscreen) tracked very similarly with levels of acculturation.

With sun exposure the major cause of skin cancer, including deadly melanoma, these results could have obvious health implications for the growing Asian American population in the US, especially since skin cancer diagnoses are often delayed, with more serious results, in Asian groups compared to Caucasians. Clearly, better education of individuals and doctors would be a good first step in addressing this issue.

Beyond this, though, this paper further reinforces what we’ve known in public health for years now: that culture can have a large influence on health behaviors and rates of chronic diseases. Previous studies in Asian populations have found that as immigrants to the US adopt its Western culture, their rates of diseases like heart disease and colon cancer rise to match, or even exceed, those of the US average (figure).

While such findings can certainly be viewed through a gloomy lens, they have a positive side as well: they show the potential power of prevention. If population changes in lifestyle that raise the risk of disease can change so quickly, they also have the potential to move in healthful directions as well.

Of course, it takes a concerted effort from government, communities, and individuals alike to effect such changes, even small ones, populations wide. But it can happen with a combination of large and small steps. So, as you put on your sunscreen, buy your fruits and vegetables, and get outside for a walk, remember you’re not only helping yourself but also helping create a culture of healthfulness that will benefit those around you as well.

Articles referenced:
Gorell E, et al. Adoption of western cultures by Californian Asian Americans: Attitudes and practices promoting sun exposure. Arch Dermatol. 145(5):552-556, 2009.

Flood DM, et al. Colorectal cancer incidence in Asian migrants to the United States and their descendants. Cancer Causes and Control. 11: 403±411, 2000.

Related web resources:
Your Disease Risk -- Melanoma

Cancer Prevention -- Google Knol