THE DEADLY POWER OF BELIEF

San Diego--if emotional support and feelings of hope sometimes prolong the lives of terminally ill patients, can fatalism hasten death? It seems so, according to research from the University of California.

In Chinese medicine and astrology, a person's year of birth is believed to influence his or her fate. Birth years are associated with one of five "phases"--fire, earth, metal, water, and wood--and each phase is linked to certain diseases. A person born in an earth year, for example, is believed to be susceptible to diabetes and breast cancer.

"Chinese medicine isn't passive," says sociologist David Phillips. "If someone is born with an excess of metal in his chart he might be given a name that has wood in it to counteract that influence. But it's more likely this person will feel resigned to his situation."

To investigate the effect of that resignation, Phillips examined the death certificates of 28,169 Chinese Americans. He assessed each person's commitment to traditional values based on such factors as whether they'd had an autopsy, shunned in Chinese medicine. He also matched each Chinese American with 20 whites who had the same sex, cause of death, year of death, and birth-year phase.

Phillips found that Chinese Americans diagnosed with a disease predicted by their stars died earlier-by as much as five years--than those with the same disease but without the ill-fated birth year. People with the most traditional beliefs lost the most years of life. Among whites, no association existed between birth year and date of death. When the stars speak of death, it seems, it's best not to listen.

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Vital Signs by Patricia Long and Michael Mason.

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