Latin her­itage works both ways on life­style

Cul­ture, sci­ence show ben­e­fits and draw­backs

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At 87, Maria David­son, a res­i­dent of Nor­folk, Va., shows lit­tle sign of slow­ing down, ac­cord­ing to her daugh­ter, Terry Byrne.

The Puerto Rico na­tive splits her days be­tween gar­den­ing and cook­ing, grow­ing veg­eta­bles and herbs in the yard of her brick ranch-style home and cre­at­ing healthy meals for her fam­ily, in­clud­ing 94-year-old hus­band Lin­dell.

“My mom is al­ways on her feet. She dances while she cooks; she gar­dens. I don’t even think of her as sit­ting down. She is al­ways in mo­tion,” says Byrne, a for­mer USA TO­DAY copy edi­tor who spent sev­eral years of her child­hood liv­ing in Puerto Rico with her par­ents.

Longevity runs in David­son’s fam­ily — although her mother died in her 60s from a con­gen­i­tal heart dis­or­der, her father lived un­til his 90s — and as­pects of her Latino cul­ture may play a sig­nif­i­cant role in her lengthy life: Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC), His­panic-Amer­i­cans live longer than U.S. Cau­casians or blacks, and for women, the life span is as much as three to six years longer.

Latino-Amer­i­cans also have a 24 per­cent lower risk of pre­ma­ture death, the CDC says. They de­velop heart dis­ease at rates 35 per­cent lower than whites and have 49 per­cent lower can­cer rates. They are also less likely to smoke or drink ex­ces­sively.

How­ever, it’s not all good news. The CDC re­ports Latino-Amer­i­cans are 50 per­cent more likely to die from di­a­betes or liver dis­ease. Nearly a quar­ter have poorly man­aged high blood pres­sure or are obese. They are at greater risk than whites of de­vel­op­ing de­pres­sion and also have higher rates of dis­eases re­lated to ag­ing, in­clud­ing glau­coma and de­men­tia, be­cause they live longer.

And experts fear that as more Lati­nos are born in the United States, they will lose many of the healthy habits de­vel­oped and em­braced by their an­ces­tors.

Author and plant-based diet pro­po­nent Dr. Michael Greger calls the in­con­gruity be­tween the rel­a­tively dis­ad­van­taged pop­u­la­tion and their ex­tended life spans the “His­panic para­dox.”

“Is it ge­netic? No, be­cause as Amer­i­can-born His­pan­ics ac­cul­tur­ate, their mor­tal­ity rates go up,” he says.

At ap­prox­i­mately 58 mil­lion, Lati­nos make up nearly 18 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, the coun­try’s largest eth­nic mi­nor­ity. It is pro­jected there will be 119 mil­lion His­pan­ics in the U.S. by 2060, or about 28 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

The di­ver­sity of this group presents re­searchers with the op­por­tu­nity to study health dis­par­i­ties in Lati­nos from all back­grounds, with the goal of un­der­stand­ing why their life ex­pectan­cies are longer and de­velop ap­proaches to pre­serve this trend, says Dr. Eliseo PérezStable, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute on Mi­nor­ity Health and Health Dis­par­i­ties at the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health.

“We should use this (re­search) as a tool to un­der­stand bi­ol­ogy as well as pop­u­la­tion and so­cial sciences.” PérezStable re­cently com­pleted a study of de­pres­sion among Lati­nos and AfricanAmer­i­cans which found both groups are sig­nif­i­cantly more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence se­ri­ous de­pres­sion than whites, and he is work­ing on a lon­gi­tu­di­nal health study to de­ter­mine how this will af­fect the health of cer­tain His­panic-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tions over time.

But sci­ence isn’t needed to know which of the im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion’s good habits should be sus­tained to pre­serve op­ti­mal health. Ac­cord­ing to the experts, such pos­i­tive prac­tices in­clude:

Not smok­ing

“The low smok­ing rates in Lati­nos are great,” Pérez-Sta­ble says.

Phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity

Rarely do peo­ple do enough, adds Pérez-Sta­ble. He rec­om­mends set­ting goals and mea­sur­ing steps. Even Lati­nos with phys­i­cally de­mand­ing jobs should use a fit­ness tracker to make sure they are ac­tive enough. “It’s so good for your phys­i­cal health and men­tal health.”

Health­ful eat­ing


His­panic her­itage cook­ing in­cor­po­rates veg­eta­bles, beans, sweet pota­toes, corn and av­o­cado, a pow­er­ful punch of nu­tri­ents and healthy fats and pro­teins.

“Beans, beans and more beans. The things we can learn from tra­di­tional di­ets: corn, squash and beans,” Greger says. “You start eat­ing the Amer­i­can diet, you can die of Amer­i­can dis­eases.”

Proper sleep

“We are learn­ing so much about how im­por­tant sleep is,” he says.

Prob­a­bly the largest health threat to Amer­i­can His­pan­ics is di­a­betes. Latino adults are 1.7 times more likely than non-His­panic whites to be di­ag­nosed with di­a­betes.

When David­son learned she had an el­e­vated marker for pre­di­a­betes, she cut sweets from her diet and used a food jour­nal to record ev­ery­thing she eats. She lost 30 pounds, and 11 years later her blood su­gar re­mains nor­mal.

Armed with the knowl­edge of her mother’s health con­cerns, her daugh­ter, Byrne, who is Puerto Ri­can and Scot­sIr­ish, has had a few health is­sues, but like her mother, tack­les any­thing that comes up head-on.

“I try to mimic how (my mom) eats and be healthy, but it’s more about what you do with your time,” says Byrne. “My mom has this at­ti­tude of ‘live every day to the fullest.’ That’s the magic right there.”


A bet­ter un­der­stand­ing your her­itage can lead you to im­prove your health.

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