In the U.S., we focus much attention on the health behaviors that can help us live a longer life: the “secrets” of centenarians and long-lived animal species such as the naked mole rat, the optimal amount of exercise to help us maintain muscle tone and independence, and the best eating style—whether it’s eating like we live in the Mediterranean, restricting calories or something in between. Yet part of the U.S. population seems to be unlocking the keys to increased longevity despite having risk factors traditionally linked to a shorter lifespan.
Approximately 55 million people in the U.S. are of Hispanic descent, and on average, they live two years longer than non-Hispanic whites. The Hispanic population in the U.S. has a lower overall risk of dying from 7 of the top 10 leading causes of death, including cancer and heart disease. Known as the “Hispanic paradox,” these positive health outcomes are often achieved among immigrant populations and in people with a greater likelihood living in poverty, having less education and health insurance, being overweight and several other factors that can negatively affect health. Additionally, rates of illness and death from other chronic conditions such as diabetes and liver disease remain higher among Hispanics than whites.
In an effort to boost longevity across ethnicities, scientists are studying how these unlikely circumstances—being high risk in certain areas, yet having a longer lifespan—can coexist. Theories include:
- A study of lung disease in Hispanics suggests that their genes may protect against chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an inflammatory lung disease, in addition to other factors.
- Hispanics who come to live in the U.S. are generally younger than the average population and stay healthier.
- With the exception of people from Puerto Rico, immigrants from Hispanic cultures smoke less than the overall population, leading to less lung disease. One study found that Hispanics in New Mexico are diagnosed less often with COPD than those living in other areas. Puerto Ricans, however, tend to smoke more and have a higher asthma risk.
- A diet rich in beans and lentils, common in some Hispanic cultures, may curb inflammation to reduce chronic health risks.
- Researchers think the strong family ties and support system seen in extended Hispanic families may play a role in staying healthy, particularly in the area of mental health.
Researchers continue to study Hispanic populations in the U.S. to try to find concrete reasons behind the Hispanic paradox to help them live even longer, healthier lives. During National Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate Hispanic heritage and culture in the U.S.—and all that these communities can teach us about living a healthier and longer life!
Stacy Brooks is the former director of marketing and communications for the American Physiological Society (APS). One of her favorite things about working at APS was learning about the interesting and important research that physiologists do and finding ways to communicate their science to a wide variety of audiences who benefit from these research advances.