20 February 2019
Illustration: Curtin University research
Illustration: Curtin University research

Why the unkindest cut for Chinese dementia sufferers?

Chinese people with dementia are getting doubly stigmatized but the unfortunate situation is not due to bias but language.

When diseases are named after symptoms in a centuries-old language that is both symbolic and descriptive, sufferers can be stuck with unwanted attention for their condition.

For instance, the Chinese name for diabetes is “sugary pee” while a dyslexic has “trouble reading”.

But people with dementia are “insane” and “idiotic” by virtue of word association with two Chinese characters used to name the disease, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

The double stigma is causing sufferers to shun treatment and health professionals are fighting to have it expunged.

“The Chinese name implies that patients are both mentally ill and severely stupid,” Helen Chiu, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Bloomberg.

Chiu was the lead author of an editorial in a medical journal. Eight doctors from China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Switzerland signed the piece.

The issue is not limited to Chinese-speaking populations.

The Japanese and Korean languages rely on many Chinese characters and many Asian medical names were adapted from those used centuries ago by Chinese practitioners who called illnesses after symptoms or causes.

Chiu and her group want dementia to be called something else but that would mean undoing centuries of Chinese naming convention. 

A Han Dynasty physician gave the first formal Chinese name to dementia, Bloomberg said, citing a report by researchers from the Chinese PLA General Hospital and the University of Chinese Medicine in Beijing.

In the 16th century, a Ming Dynasty doctor attributed the ailment to the misdirection of bodily energy flow, or “qi”, the report said.

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