When it comes to Hispanics and health care, the horror stories are well known. Less so is the mysterious phenomenon known as the "Hispanic Paradox."
Again and again, we hear that the Hispanic population is disproportionately beset by the bugbears of poverty, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and lack of access to quality health coverage and insurance.
These unfortunate facts are indisputable. But what many people don't realize is that, when it comes to the bottom line -- that is, mortality -- the news for Hispanics is good. Very good.
In the United States, Hispanics, despite their socio-economic hurdles, on average live longer than blacks by seven years, and whites by five years, says Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine at UCLA.
"There's something about being Latino that is good for their health," Hayes-Bautista told HispanicBusiness.com, adding wryly: "Just think if we had access to health care."
Widely known as the "Hispanic Paradox," the phenomenon was discovered and coined by researchers decades ago.
At the time, many scientists were skeptical, speculating that the data must have been skewed. They hypothesized that immigrants who came to the United States were simply younger and healthier than the average American, or that a large share of older immigrants returned home to die.
But recent studies have refuted the doubting theories, and the science community today generally accepts the Hispanic Paradox as real.
Now, Hayes-Bautista is on the front lines trying to figure out why this is so.
"There's something going on here," he said. "Is it diet, is it family, is it spiritual, is it the Latino mind-body balance? I don't know."
Hopefully, Hayes-Bautista said, his extensive research on the topic will eventually shed some light.
The longer lifespan of Hispanics has been described in several ways by different studies, and to varying degrees.
In 2007, the Public Policy Institute of California found that the average lifespan of a Hispanic man in that state is 77.5 years, compared to 75.5 among white males and 68.6 among black males. The lifespan of Hispanic men was topped only by Asian men, whose average lifespan came in at 80.4.
In 2008, the National Center for Health Statistics released a study showing that the overall mortality rate for Hispanics in 2006 was 550 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 778 for whites, and 1,001 for blacks.
Hayes-Bautista said that Hispanics in the United States are 35 percent less likely than whites to die of heart disease, and 40 percent less likely to develop cancer.
Immigration plays a factor, he said, albeit a small one.
For instance, the mortality rates of first-generation immigrants are consistently better than that of U.S.-born Hispanics. But he said the difference between these groups is seldom statistically significant.
More noteworthy, he said, are the behavioral differences between immigrants and the U.S.-born.
Immigrants, he said, are far less likely than U.S. born Hispanics to smoke, drink, do drugs and contract sexually transmitted diseases. Similarly, he said, U.S.-born Hispanics with high levels of education also tend to avoid these high-risk behaviors and their consequences.
Perhaps more surprisingly, another stark contrast between immigrant and the U.S.-born Hispanics is tied to infant mortality. Hayes-Bautista said that although both groups rate "extremely good" on this measure, the U.S.-born Hispanics have a 20 percent higher infant-mortality rate than that of the immigrants.
"U.S.-born Hispanics have higher income, higher education, are far more likely to have health insurance, yet their outcome (on infant mortality) isn't quite a good as immigrant parents."
This might lead one to ask whether this means that Mexicans live healthier than Americans. Not so, according to the CIA World Factbook of 2008.
On that index, the life expectancy of Americans in 2008 reached 78 (a national record). For Mexicans, it was about 76.
However, Hayes-Bautista said the lifestyle in rural Mexico is much healthier than that of urban Mexico. What's more, he says, the bulk of Hispanic immigrants in America hail from the rural pockets of Mexico.
Elena Rios, President and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, said overall, the immigrant Hispanics are younger, and abide by healthier habits, than U.S. born Hispanics.
"With the immigrants, the first generation has healthier habits: less driving, less smoking, less fast foods, more walking," she told HispanicBusiness.com. "As the second-generation Hispanic families happen, they pick up the Western -- the American -- lifestyle."
As a result, Rios said she wants any healthcare reform package to include an educational component urging Hispanics to get back to their basics, such as traditional foods.
"It is important to have more prevention and education when they are younger, before they get into bad habits," she said.
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