DR. HOOK- Don't be pa-bow! Eat right, don't smoke, work out
Korean as I am, I'm not very Korean. I didn't learn the language, so all my relatives call me "stupid" in Korean. I don't even know how to spell "stupid" in Korean– something like "pa-bow." When I go to South Korea, they think I look Chinese. In fact, when I eat dim sum, the Chinese ladies pushing around the steaming carts speak Chinese to me. When I meekly reply, "Sorry, but I don't know what you're saying," they usually scream at me, "Chicken! Shrimp!"
When I saw The New England Journal of Medicine reporting on a study, "Body-Mass Index and Mortality in Korean Men and Women," I was pretty psyched. My father's alma mater was involved in the study, and I imagined some of my relatives in Seoul might have participated in the research. I was just a little afraid the article might have a disclosure like, "These are real Koreans– unlike that pa-bow in Charlottesville, U.S.A."
It is good science to look at other cultures and regions because they can give us an idea of whether our studies are valid. The findings of the study were pretty interesting, though they led to more questions than answers. Over one million health-insured South Koreans were followed for about 12 years– a huge-o-la study! The patients were followed to see how body mass index (BMI) correlates with death. (BMI = weight in kilogram/height in meters squared. Note: Asians have a higher percentage of body fat than Caucasians with the same BMI.)
As anti-tobacco as I am, it was disappointing to see that 59.1 percent of the men were smokers, and 20.1 percent used to smoke (leaving only 20.8 percent of men who never smoked). In LA, many male Korean doctors smoke like chimneys, and many of my male Korean relatives smoke as if they're preparing ham. On the other hand, 93.8 percent of Korean women had never smoked– and they live longer.
Only 28.6 percent of men and 16.6 percent of women exercise on a regular basis. I'm not surprised by that because many of my relatives are pretty... ah, plump. Not obese, but they think exercise is a procedure to drive the devil from a person's body. As far as alcohol goes, 76.8 percent of men drank vs. 14.3 percent of women. Are you beginning to see a cultural difference between the men and women?
In the general trend of death during the 12 years of the study, women, men who never smoked, and men who smoked– with a BMI between 23.0-24.9 (which is considered normal)– lived the longest. As the BMI gets lower or higher, deaths increased. It's kind of like Goldielocks: this porridge is too hot, this porridge is too cold, but this medium-portioned porridge (i.e. BMI 23.0-24.9) is just right.
For nonsmoking and smoking men who were obese (BMI >30.0) the death rate increased exponentially– like The Honeymooners' line, "To the moon, Alice!" The death rate for women increased, but not nearly as drastically as for men– maybe because women seek medical care more often?
Now, how about those who were overweight (BMI 25.0-29.9)? It's hard to say. In general, there appears to be increased risk of death, but it was not statistically proven. But if you break it down by age, all overweight people more than 50 years of age had increased death due to cardiovascular disease.
So what does this mean for non-Korean Americans? A recent study shows there might be increased risk of death in overweight Americans 50-71 years of age. I think what it comes down to is this: with modern medicine, we might live longer but not necessarily better. Who wants to swallow 50 pills for weight-related problems? Eating right, exercise, and not smoking might be of great benefit to you.