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More U.S. Hispanics should be dying younger; Why aren’t they?

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More U.S. Hispanics should be dying younger; Why aren’t they?

This is not a question larded with ethnic prejudice but a widely debated medical mystery. A recent Texas university study confirmed it:  American Latinos tend to have health outcomes that in many cases are equal or better than those of non-Hispanic Whites – including lower death rates, fewer mental disorders, and higher survival rates from heart disease and other medical conditions.

This finding has been replicated so often that it’s become known among researchers as the “Hispanic Paradox.”

Why the fuss? Because life isn’t fair: Health tends to follow wealth, and wealth tends to track with educational achievement. Conventional socioeconomic analysis would predict poorer health and higher mortality for American Hispanics, in keeping with the fact that, compared to non-Hispanic Whites, they tend to have less education, lower incomes, higher poverty rates and less health insurance.

But while Hispanics do suffer more from certain ills such as obesity and diabetes, that’s not what the overall data show.

The latest study’s lead researcher, John Ruiz, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Texas, said the paradox is likely due to a mix of biological, behavioral and psychosocial elements. Among the latter, he said, could be Hispanic cultural factors such as the importance placed on strong family ties and on maintaining close social relationships and support systems.

“Hispanics are very social,” he said, “and … social support has been shown to contribute to better health.”

 Other researchers have mentioned other possible explanations; one is that the Hispanics who migrate to the U.S. tend to be among the healthier members of their communities, and that some return to their home countries as their health declines. 

So is this good news for American Hispanics? Yes, but with an interesting and mildly troubling caveat: Hispanics born outside of the U.S. tend to have better health outcomes than those born in the U.S., but that advantage fades the longer they live here.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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