Latin heritage works both ways on lifestyle
Culture, science show benefits and drawbacks
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:
“The low smoking rates in Latinos are great,” Pérez-Stable says.
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.”
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.”
“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.