Latinos in Ventura County, Calif., are four times less likely to have health insurance than white non-Hispanics. Their median income -- $21,693 -- is less than half that of white non-Hispanics. Their poverty rate is more than three times higher. They're more than 10 times less likely to earn the high school degree that can bring income, insurance and access to doctors, according to three-year census estimates from 2008 to 2010. Their rates of diabetes and obesity hover at epidemic levels.
But they live longer. Research suggests their life expectancy swells even more if they immigrated from another country, although that journey brings more poverty and even less access to health care.
It's a fountain of youth that doctors and demographers flatly admit they can't explain. They call it the Hispanic paradox.
"We keep seeing the same trends for 30 years. We can't explain it away. We can't adjust it away," said Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA. "If everyone in the U.S. had the epidemiological profile as Latinos for heart disease, cancer and stroke, we would save about 300,000 lives a year. I think that's worth understanding."
Some observers question the way ethnicity is tracked at death, along with the inability to track immigrants who return to their homeland late in life. But few researchers question that the paradox is real. They point to a litany of statistics.
According to California Department of Finance estimates culled from 2008 to 2010, Latino men in Ventura County had an average life expectancy of slightly more than 80 years, about two years longer than non-Hispanic whites. Latino women lived about 85 years, compared with 82 for white women.
Across the nation, Latinos can expect to live an average of 81.2 years. That's more than two years longer than white non-Hispanics and nearly seven years longer than African-Americans, according to 2009 data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
The national numbers also show Latinos have a 33 percent lower mortality rate from heart disease than white non-Hispanics. Their rate of cancer deaths is 36 percent lower.
Data from the California Department of Health Services and the U.S. Census Bureau show Latinos across California have a life expectancy of nearly 81 years, longer than any major ethnic or racial group except for one. Asians have a life expectancy of 83 years, according to the 2004 report from the Public Policy Institute of California.
It's not the longevity alone that grabs the attention of Hans Johnson, a demographer with the Public Policy Institute who has studied mortality rates on and off for 20 years. He focuses on the high rate of uninsurance, the overwhelming poverty and pressures that push people away from high school and college degrees.
The socioeconomic factors have always been used to measure well-being, cited in explanations of why African-Americans live shorter lives and Asian-Americans live longer.
It's more than a theory, Johnson said. Researchers know poverty and lack of insurance increase the risk of illness and disease. But even with the barriers, Latinos live longer.
"It flies in the face of common sense," he said. "It flies in the face of the relationship we know exists between health access and health outcome."
Johnson's research goes further. The 2004 Public Policy Institute study that he co-authored shows Latinos who immigrate to the United States, often for backbreaking jobs, low wages and no chance at insurance, live an average of nearly three years longer than Latinos born here and 10 years longer than African-Americans.
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