Japanese women are not immune to menopause. But their experiences seem like night and day compared to their Western counterparts. The severity of symptoms and even the symptoms themselves are very different from many women in North America. What accounts for these differences, when women everywhere will go through menopause? Is menopause a universal and shared event, or do societal and cultural differences mean that no two international menopause stories are alike?
Japanese women and menopause
Some fascinating studies have shown that overall, Japanese women suffer far fewer menopausal symptoms. They further suffer less severe forms of any menopausal symptoms they do report having. Medical anthropologist Dr. Margaret Lock set out to prove her theory that cultural differences play a very important part of menopause. Dr. Lock was drawn to the phenomenon of Asian women and their menopausal experiences. The results were interesting and might well support the thought that lifestyle has some influence over menopause.
Dr. Lock studied 1200 Japanese women ages 45-55, and compared their experiences to a similar study involving 8000 women from Massachusetts, and 1300 women from Manitoba, Canada. Upon comparing her findings, the following points are particularly interesting.
*The Japanese women were found to have lower risks of heart disease and breast cancer and greater longevity.
*Generally, women of Asian descent are believed to be more prone to developing osteoporosis. But Dr. Lock discovered that while the Japanese often have lower bone density, these women reported fewer occurrences of osteoporosis.
At the same time, Dr. Vanda of the Discovery media outlet was interested in that Japanese women reported having hot flashes so rarely, that until recently there were no words for hot flashes in the Japanese language. On the other hand, there were numerous complaints of a condition known as ‘frozen shoulders’ or pain and limited movement. This symptom is generally found only in older people, and while it has many causes, hormonal imbalance in women is thought to contribute to frozen shoulders.
What would account for Japanese women suffering far less than women in North America? After all, women everywhere will go through menopause. Every woman who reaches her menopausal years will experience a shift in hormones as estrogens production decreases. Some very interesting possible explanations emerged from these studies.
*Japanese women have traditionally consumed diets high in soy proteins, and soy is often thought to lessen the severity of menopausal symptoms including hot flashes and night sweats.
*The Japanese diet is also high in vegetables and low in bad cholesterols and saturated fats.
One thing to keep in mind is that these dietary habits have been passed down through several generations, and from birth Japanese citizens have these built-in disease fighting traits. Compare this to a typical 40 year old North American who tries to load up on soy products to compensate for years of the typical North American way of eating.
Now as greater numbers of Japanese women adopt more North American dietary habits, there could be health and menopause impacts over the next few generations.
Japanese and aging
Researchers are also interested in the way that age is regarded in different cultures. In Japan, aging is not seen as a terrible time or the end of life for men or women. Japanese women do not tend to see menopause as a phase of loss compared to North American women, who mourn the loss of periods, the loss of hormones, the loss of reproduction, and the loss of looks. Instead, Japanese society reveres older women for their wisdom and maturity according to Dr. Marilyn Glenville.
This is not to say that all is perfect, but it does indicate that unlike the stereotypical mid-life crisis that deems the rest of life as ‘all downhill from here’ life in Japan is seen as ongoing. In many other developed countries, youth still rules while older people are thought to be too old to make any meaningful contributions to society or to family. Japanese society sees old age as a time of gain rather than of loss, hence older Japanese women do not necessarily dread their advanced years compared to their more youth obsessed Western sisters.
The symptoms of menopause are very real and any woman who is going through menopause knows that her body is undergoing some very significant changes. – It is not all in her head. Yet there is emerging support for understanding those cultural attitudes towards women, their role in society, and the aging progress impact menopause to some extent. A few grey hairs, a wrinkle or two, or menopause should not be regarded as the end of a woman’s life. But until Western societies can learn to embrace old age and see it as a time of life where women can still continue to thrive, menopause will remain a time of dread. Meanwhile, Japanese women will have to wait and see if the global reaches of Western values change the way menopause is dealt with in Japanese culture in their daughters and granddaughters.
Sources: www.sciencenews.com for more on Dr. Margaret Lock’s work
www.marilynglenville.com for more on Dr. Glenville’s work
www.discovery.com/centers/womens/menopausenew/culture/culture.html for more on Dr. Vanda’s work
Menopause, Your Doctor, and You