October 14, 2010 in Nation/World

Life spans of Latinos beat odds

Lisa M. Krieger San Jose Mercury News
 

SAN JOSE, Calif. – The first national study of Latino life expectancy reveals that Latinos live 2.5 years longer than whites – a poor-in-wealth, rich-in-health paradox that mystifies doctors.

A Latino baby in the U.S. will live to the average age of 80.6 years, compared to 78.1 years for a white baby, according to the new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, released Wednesday.

“This is surprising because of low social status,” said Elizabeth Arias of the CDC. Based on rates of poverty, education and access to care – factors long known to be linked to poor health – Latinos should have shorter lives, she said.

There is even a wider gap between Latinos and blacks, who have a life expectancy of 72.9 years. Asians were not included in the study.

The so-called “Latino Paradox” was first noted in small studies in the 1970s by researchers looking at death rates in California and Texas. But many others have long called the data wrong or anomalous.

The new study ends the dispute by correcting for previous errors in its vast analysis of more reliable data from the official National Center for Health Statistics. This long-awaited proof means that scientists can now start solving the mystery.

The phenomenon could have major significance for California – where, since late 2001, more than 50 percent of the babies born have been Latino. When these babies reach adulthood, they will, by sheer force of numbers, influence the health, wellness and perhaps medical economics of the Golden State.

“Something in the Latino culture seems to have tremendous protective factors,” said David Hayes-Bautista, who directs UCLA Medical School’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture.

If every Californian had the same death rate as Latinos, 49,000 fewer Californians would die every year, he said.

“What’s going on? That’s the million-dollar question. But with such a clear national trend, involving 47 million Latinos, there clearly has to be a logical explanation,” said Hayes-Bautista, author of the book “Nuevo California,” which analyzes the future of Latinos in the state.

“It completely goes against the notion that minorities are sicker and die younger,” he said.

When the data were broken down to compare men and women of all three ethnicities, it found that Latino females are the longest lived, with a life expectancy at birth of 83.1 years. White females followed, at 80.4 years. Black males were the shortest lived, at 69.2 years.

While Latinos have higher rates of diabetes than other ethnic groups, they do not seem to die from it at the rates seen in others, doctors say.

On the other hand, Latinos have lower rates of cancer, stroke and heart disease – big killers of whites and blacks. Research suggests that Latinos have fewer “self-harming” habits, such as drinking, smoking and illegal drug use.

Perhaps diet plays a role, say doctors, if Latinos favor beans, rice and vegetables over American fast food.

Strong social support networks have also been suggested, a favor that may particularly help new mothers. Latinos’ infant mortality rates are lower than those of whites and blacks.

Some scholars attribute it to immigration, which may favor the healthy. Others say that immigrants may return to their home countries when sick, skewing the data.

It did not explore whether infant American-born Latinos might face different health risks than their elders. Some studies have found that Latinos who have been in the United States for several generations are more likely to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs than recent immigrants.

Other studies suggest immigrants have tighter social bonds, healthier diets and lower rates of mental illness.

Similarly, immigrants are more likely than Americanized Latinos to breast-feed their babies, which is proven to help fend off disease.


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