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Professor Hiroyasu Iso / Dr. Kokoro Shirai, Specially Appointed Associate Professor Department of Public Health Graduate School of Medicine

Professor Hiroyasu Iso 
Dr. Kokoro Shirai, Specially Appointed Associate Professor
Department of Public Health
Graduate School of Medicine

"Fusion of different academic backgrounds elucidates health issues from social determinants"

In September 2020, a long-standing collaboration between researchers at Osaka University and University College London resulted in the publication of Health in Japan, which compiles comprehensive views and social determinants on health issues in Japan for the first time in English. The editors of this publication, Professor Hiroyasu Iso, Professor Eric Brunner, and Dr. Noriko Cable, are leading epidemiologists who have been working together for over a decade.

Global network opens new avenues for public health  

Collaboration between the three researchers goes back to 2008, when Professor Brunner spent his sabbatical time at Professor Iso’s laboratory after discovering Professor Iso’s work on his website and asking if they could work together. At the time, Professor Brunner was in the laboratory of Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Director of Institute of Health Equity at UCL and Former President of The World Medical Association. Sir Michael was a leading figure in opening new avenues for public health based on social and economic determinants, which was not a common approach in Japan at that time. Professor Iso was so stimulated by this new research approach that he invited Sir Michael, Professor Brunner, and Dr. Cable to Osaka in the following year to organize the first Summer Seminar with the aim of providing researchers and practitioners in Japan with new knowledge and fresh approaches. The seminar continues to be held every summer to this day.

Social epidemiology was developed over the past 20 years in Japan. Professor Iso has a background in cardiovascular diseases and has been devoted to the development of social epidemiology, which made him a pioneer in the field. His supervisor often advised him to pay close attention to lifestyle as he recognized the significant effect of lifestyle habits on one’s health. Questionnaires are an effective method in analyzing such determinants and have been newly introduced to research approaches in public health, which used to primarily analyze physical and blood data. Researchers in humanities and social sciences often make use of questionnaires, making them crucial for the development of this new approach. This realization led Professor Iso to welcome talent from the humanities and social sciences, and he has been developing human resources for further advancement of research in social epidemiology.

Providing opportunities to researchers without medical backgrounds to play key roles in social epidemiology

Dr. Kokoro Shirai, an associate professor at Professor Iso’s laboratory, is one of the talented individuals that Professor Iso has developed. She appreciated Professor Iso’s supervision and guidance, as well as the opportunities he provides for those who did not possess a background in medicine to get into this field. In her recent study published in Health in Japan, she examined possible social determinants of health in Okinawa, an island that once had both the highest life expectancy and largest number of centenarians per 100,000 people but dropped to 27th among 47 prefectures by 2005. She mentions that Okinawa is a microcosm of health disparities and social determinants of health in Japanese society, portrayed in its changes in lifestyle habits, its socio-economic environment, and the strong bonds of the people in the area, all of which have affected health on the island chain.

Health in Japan was scheduled to be published at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games this year as 1964, the year in which the previous Tokyo Olympic Games were held, was the turning point for Japan in terms of longevity as life expectancy began to increase and nutrition of its citizens improved. Though unfortunately not meant to be, this year would have marked a truly meaningful and symbolic time to hold a comprehensive examination of the country’s transition to an aging yet healthy society as the second Tokyo Olympic Games were set to take place.

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