Editor's Note: This report on Latino longevity and the Hispanic Paradox is part of the Hispanic Link News Service Health Project which is underwritten by The California Endowment, with administrative support from The ASPIRA Association.
Being born Latino adds years to your life.
That’s because Hispanics have demographically higher rates of longevity than do non-Latino whites and African Americans. Hispanics are also the fastest growing demographic in the United States.
The evidence began coming to light in a pioneering 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It found Hispanics on average live 80.6 years, non-Hispanic whites 78.1 years and African Americans 72.9.
Then, a new longevity report by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society, published in Health Affairs in September, further explored Hispanic life expectancy patterns.
Latinas, who were age 25 in 2008, can expect to live 84 years, or 4.3 years longer than their male Hispanic counterparts, 2.7 and 5.8 years longer than white and African-American women, respectively.
Life expectancy for Hispanic males, who were 25-years old in 2008, is 79.7 years. They will outlast their non-Hispanic white age mates by 2.4 years and their black cohorts by 7.3 years.
Education and Longevity
The MacArthur Network study documents how more education leads to much greater life for non-Hispanic whites and African Americans. Surprisingly, the education effect, while evident, is less pronounced among Hispanics, especially Latinas.
Highly educated (16-plus years of formal education) African-American males born in 1983 are expected to live a decade longer than their lower educated (fewer than twelve years of schooling) black gender peers. For African American women, the same education gap produces a 6.7 year longevity differential.
Educational division is even greater for whites. It is estimated that the highest educated white females will survive by 10.5 more years than their lowest educated racial cohort. For white males, the same divide is 2.5 years.
In the words of the study’s authors, “Education exerts its direct beneficial effects on health through the adoption of healthier lifestyles, better ability to cope with stress, and more effective management of chronic diseases.”
This applies mostly to blacks and whites.
A Latina born in 1983 who dropped out of high school can still expect to live 83.4 years. With advanced education (some college or more), she is projected to make it until age 86. That is a remarkable number, and the highest anticipated longevity of anyone examined in the MacArthur Network analysis.
Failure to complete high school for Latinas nonetheless translates into two more years of living than non-Hispanic white women overall and nearly six years longer than the average for African-American woman. This Latina is expected to outlive her comparably less-educated white and black counterparts by some nine years each. Indeed, she approximates the life expectancy of very highly educated (16-plus years of school) white females.
Among Latina life expectancy, however, education is less compelling. The three year differential between high- and low-educated Latinas foreshadows the Hispanic enigma.
Education and Hispanic Men
The patterns for Hispanic men are similar.
A 25-year old Latino high school dropout in 2008 is likely to outlast both his African-American and white gender counterparts by ten years. Actually, he will probably fall about three years short of the estimated mortality demise of very highly educated white males.
According to the MacArthur Network study, education is emerging as an important influence on the longevity rates of Hispanic men. The life expectancy of well-educated Hispanic men born in 1983 is, like Latinas, age 84, 5.5 years longer than their less educated 2008 ethnic age mates and 6.4 years more than Latino males with the same educational background born in 1965.
Still, the educational crevice among Hispanics – men and, especially, women -- is not as deep as it is for whites and blacks.
Hispanic Longevity in California
Research on Hispanic life expectancy in California adds to puzzle.
A 2011 study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, reviewed nearly 700,000 California death records from 1999 to 2001. It confirmed the aforementioned results: among people born in 2000 Latinos are projected to live longer than whites (by about one year) and African Americans (by some six years), regardless of gender.
Socioeconomic status (SES), as measured by neighborhood characteristics, substantially differentiates life expectancy for California non-Hispanic whites and African Americans. White and black men in wealthy areas will live a projected decade longer than those of their same respective race living in the poorest neighborhoods. These neighborhood-class extremes mark a difference of half dozen years by women of both races.
The socioeconomic status of neighborhoods has little bearing on California Latinos’ longevity.
On average, there is only a six month life expectancy separation between a Latina residing in a California barrio and her Hispanic gender counterpart living in a more affluent neighborhood. Hispanic women in impoverished areas will survive a year longer than white females residing in the wealthiest California enclaves. That pattern is exactly the same for the state’s Asian women.
Latinas and African-American women ensconced in the state’s most down-trodden ghettoes have a noteworthy 8.7 years of difference in longevity. Latinas from similar class surroundings, when compared to African American men in poor neighborhoods, will outlive them by an astounding 16.2 years!
California’s Hispanic males show minimal life expectancy variation stemming from neighborhood residence and the socioeconomic characteristics this implies. A difference of only one year separates the longevity of Latino men from the poorest and the wealthiest SES Hispanic neighborhoods. There is more variation – 4.3 years – between Asian men living at opposite sides of the socioeconomic spectrum.
A Latino male in the most impoverished community will live seven years longer than a non-Hispanic white man. The same Hispanic male will outlive by nearly 11 years an African-American male from a similar background. Estimates show Latinos from the low-income neighborhood will live just 3.4 years shy of the projected life expectancy of non-Hispanic white males residing in California affluence.
The Hispanic Paradox
The California longevity study well illustrates the Hispanic Paradox. Latinos exhibit an indifference to certain socioeconomic factors when it comes to longevity. Like Asians, they manifest less vulnerability than other populations to certain environmental exposures and class differences associated with their neighborhood surroundings. In 2000, about 22 percent of California’s African-American and Hispanic populations were impoverished, the major determinant responsible for their living in low-income neighborhoods while eight percent of non-Hispanic whites were poor. Among all groups, Hispanics had the lowest educational attainment scores.
The lack of health insurance by one third of the state’s Latinos is another difference, standing about three times greater than the figure for whites and twice that for African Americans. That factor alone would be expected, under other circumstances, to depress longevity for Latinos.
Hence the paradox: Hispanics in California, with relatively few socioeconomic resources, have longer projected life expectancy than that of whites and African Americans.
What’s the Explanation?
Among the several possible explanations for the Hispanic longevity Paradox, the inflow of immigrants is often cited. That claim theorizes that immigrants are unusually fit physically and psychologically and come with dietary habits and a lifestyle commitment to achievement. Hard, intensive work, adds endurance through an ethic of good health habits and longer life.
Studies generally show that immigrant children are, on the whole, more ambitious than Latino native populations and, on the whole, may often have higher than average schooling achievement than native cohorts, which too might add to longer life.
This analysis is plausible, as far as it goes. But it does not completely explain life expectancy because not all Latinos are immigrants. In fact, most are not.
A downside to immigrant acculturation may actually compromise their good health regimen with high-fat, high-carbohydrate diets and sedentary lifestyles. Generationally, as immigrant Hispanics advance in settlement, their well-being may deteriorate, with the possible consequence of shorter lives.
The authors of the MacArthur Network study, in fact, caution that second and third generation Latinos at all ages will have “higher mortality rates than members of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.” The researchers advance “that as Hispanics become a larger proportion of the U.S. population, their current longevity advantage may diminish rapidly.”
This tantalizing suggestion is based on unpublished sources and should be treated as speculation from the MacArthur Network data, at least at this point.
Another explanation for the Hispanic Paradox is found in Latino family, social networks, social structure and culture. A smattering of evidence suggests that many Latino community environments discourage high-risk behaviors, such as excessive smoking, high alcohol consumption and heavy use of mind-altering chemicals that may threaten lifespans. Social reinforcement, providing comfort and support, mixed with community-based practical assistance, contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
Dr. Elizabeth Arias of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that these social forces might “serve as protective factors that mitigate the negative effects of poverty or underemployment or lack of health care.”
Another consideration is found in the California mortality report, which deconstructs the “Latino” category into subgroups. Among them are people from El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. The idea merits further examination given that the current California Latino population is 82 percent Mexican origin. The current life expectancy at birth in Mexico is 76 years. Is there a connection here?
Mexico’s Health secretary Salomón Chertorivski recently observed that, since accelerating health care advances are taking place, such as in robotics, telemedicine and genomics, it’s not unthinkable to suggest that Mexicans born after 2040 could live 150 to 200 years. Although the immediate response to this forecast was public ridicule, there may be something there to consider as it might affect U.S. populations of similar genetics, lifestyle and culture influences in light of improved healthcare.
Jane L. Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, says about the basis for the Hispanic Paradox, “It’s probably not genetic. The longer [Hispanics] are in the United States they start to lose some of [their] health advantages.”
Although genetic explanations for Hispanic longevity are rarely considered, it seems far too early in the game to dismiss summarily genes as a possibility for understanding the roots of the Paradox.
When understood better, the component aspects of the Hispanic Paradox might become a national standard for the rest of us. Unmasking the secrets of the Paradox should help policymakers formulate plans and programs that promote better health and longer life for everyone.
Based in Washington, D.C., Dr. Lamare is social scientist and a contributing editor to the Hispanic Link News Service.
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