When it comes to habits, you may think you are in complete control of what you do and how and when you do it. To some extent, that’s true. You are in control of creating new habits and breaking old ones. Yet, the culture you live in has more influence on your health habits than you might realize.
Habits are activities we engage in subconsciously. Believe it or not, this design is evolutionary. Habits enable people to act without using much thought or brain power. This design saves means more intense brain processes can be saved for more challenging tasks.
A person’s habits may seem individual, but they are actually shaped by the culture around them. Think about the type of food you like to eat. It’s likely that if you are Japanese, your favorite cuisine isn’t Swedish. The ways culture shapes habits can makes them even more challenging to change.
Take smoking, for example. If you’re a smoker, quitting this habit can greatly reduce your risk of dementia. But why do you smoke in the first place? It can largely be due to the culture in which you lived when you picked up the habit.
In the United States, Hispanics have the lowest rates of smoking by a pretty big margin (10 percent of Hispanics smoke versus 17 percent of caucasians, 17 percent of African Americans, and 22 percent of American Indian/Alaska Natives). The concept of familismo (the importance of family structure and relationships) is believed to prevent many Hispanics from smoking. Some studies report that Hispanics say they quit smoking to please their families. Hispanic teens say they don’t start smoking to avoid the disapproval of family.
In other cultures, smoking is often correlated with images of manliness. In most cultures, men’s rate of smoking is higher than women’s. In Korea, China, and Indonesia, 10 men smoke for every 1 woman who smokes. In Japan, smoking is often associated with masculinity and work ethic.
This isn’t to say that a whole culture will never smoke, or a man will never quit smoking. Instead, the idea is to be aware of your culture, its expectations of you, and how it influences your habits. If you want to quit smoking to improve your cognitive health, awareness of the cultural factors that hold you back can help you quit successfully. You’ll be more successful at making any habit change stick by identifying all the factors that led you to the habit in the first place.