From Unnatural Causes – Episode 3

Two researchers present findings related to the “Latino paradox,” the fact that new Latino immigrants, despite having on average lower incomes and highly stressful lives, suffer lower rates of chronic and mental illness than the average native-born American.

From Seattle Times:

The reasons for the paradox are a matter of debate. Some scholars attribute it to immigration, which may draw selectively from the ranks of the hale and hardy. Another possibility is that many immigrants return to their home countries when seriously ill, skewing mortality statistics in this country.

But increasingly, researchers are suggesting that such factors as diet, lifestyle choices and strong social-support networks are the key to Hispanics’ better-than-expected health.

“They’re not taking some secret Aztec herb they didn’t tell you about,” said David Hayes-Bautista, an early observer of the Hispanic paradox who directs the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical School’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture.

It’s worth figuring out what is making the difference, he added, because “we could all be better off for it.”

As the immigration debate heats up and the cost of health care soars, the phenomenon is attracting attention from social scientists and public-health officials. It was first noticed, though, in the 1970s and ’80s by researchers looking at infant- and overall mortality rates in Texas and California.

Scholars tended to view the findings as wrong or anomalous, assuming that Hispanics’ relatively disadvantaged socioeconomic status put their health status more on par with blacks’.

As data accumulated, covering broader swaths of the country and longer periods, skepticism turned to curiosity.

Kyriakos Markides, who in 1986 coined the term “Hispanic epidemiological paradox,” described scholars’ shift in recent years as remarkable.

“Nobody talked about it then,” said Markides, a professor of sociomedical sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, speaking of a generation ago. “People just ignored the data or assumed that disadvantaged populations have high mortality. Now, it’s the leading theme in the health of the Hispanic population in the United States.”

Studies have indicated that Hispanics drink less alcohol and smoke less than their white counterparts. However, their healthful behaviors appear to wane with greater acculturation in the United States.

Several studies have found that the children and grandchildren of foreign-born Hispanics tend to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs more than their parents and grandparents. And some research suggests that they are less likely to breast-feed and to stick to the healthier diets of their forebears.

“You can see it in obesity rates; they’re very high in Mexican children,” said Dr. Leo Morales, an associate professor of medicine and public health at UCLA who has written about the paradox.

“That portends high disease rates for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, all the obesity-related complications.”

Ana Abraido-Lanza, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, cited a greater availability of fast food in the U.S. and social factors, including a more relaxed attitude toward drinking.