The Hispanic Paradox: Why Are Some Ethnic Groups Living Longer than Others?

Senior couple smiling together

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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!

Erica Roth and Stacy Brooks

Sugars, Fructose and Your Health

sugar

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Early humans were probably jacks of all trades when it came to food—they ate what was available, and the amount of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in their diet varied dramatically depending on where they lived. Except for honey, there were likely no sweeteners to “spice” up their meals. That all changed 200 years ago when table sugar—a combination of the sugar molecules glucose and fructose—began to be manufactured. This provided a steady supply of inexpensive sweeteners to the general population. From that time on, the amount of sweeteners humans ate began to rise drastically. It’s no coincidence that obesity and diabetes rates increased a few decades later. The cost of sweeteners were further reduced (and the availability increased) with the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) 40 years ago. HFCS is a processed form of glucose that can be easily added to many beverages and foods.

High sugar intake may cause physiological changes in the body that can interfere with the way organs are supposed to function and the way the body burns energy (metabolism) attained through food. The average non-obese person has a very low blood fructose concentration that may be as much as 100 times lower than blood glucose levels. Consuming fructose-laden desserts and sodas quickly increases blood fructose levels, flooding liver cells that are not used to such high doses. Fructose is rapidly broken down into easily processed substances (metabolites) that can be building blocks for fats.

Consuming a lot of fructose often leads to a marked increase in fat-forming enzymes and fatty deposits in the liver.  Coincidentally, a decade after HFCS was widely introduced, a new metabolic disease—nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)—cropped up. NAFLD has been linked to overconsumption of fructose and added sugars. A fatty liver is associated with high triglycerides and “bad” cholesterol, increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease and obesity.

The good news is that these associations between added sweeteners, particularly fructose, and metabolic diseases have resulted in serious efforts to reduce consumption, like Mexico’s tax on sugary drinks and New York City’s (unsuccessful) attempt to ban sales of large sodas. In light of these efforts, people in the U.S. now seem to be eating less added sugars.

It is important to remember that moderate consumption of added fructose is most likely fine for most people. Fructose is the sweetest of the naturally occurring sugars and a little goes a long way. This is one case where “less is more.”

Ronaldo FerrarisRonaldo Ferraris, PhD, is a professor of pharmacology, physiology & neuroscience at the New Jersey Medical School at Rutgers University.  He studies intestinal epithelial biology and cell differentiation as well as integrative regulatory processes involving sugar sensing, transport and metabolism in the small intestine.

When Hormones Take Your Breath Away

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After a healthy childhood, my best friend suddenly started having breathing difficulties when she was 20 years old. The doctor diagnosed her with asthma. With the help of inhaled medications, she was able to control her symptoms. But a year later, the medications were no longer effective and she started having monthly, life-threatening asthma attacks. The severe attacks became more frequent a few days before her menstrual period, and the symptoms disappeared days after her period ended. At that time, I wondered if hormones could be to blame.

As a graduate student investigating the role of male and female hormones in lung inflammation, I know now that asthma can be a hormone-related health issue. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of this relationship. Hormones are chemicals that travel as messengers around the body through the bloodstream. They affect many bodily functions and play a large role in a woman’s life cycle from birth through puberty, adulthood, pregnancy and menopause. In proper balance, hormones help the body communicate and thrive. But sometimes hormone levels can be too high or too low, causing serious health problems, especially in people with asthma.

Although more young boys have asthma than girls, the pattern is reversed in adults: More women have asthma than men. During puberty girls begin to produce higher levels of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone, which rise and fall throughout their menstrual cycle. About one-third of females with asthma report premenstrual-related asthma symptoms, which may lead to severe attacks. A research study of girls ages 8 to 17 found that those who started menstruating at earlier ages developed more severe asthma after puberty, perhaps because their hormone levels began to change earlier in life. Studies have shown that hormonal changes can disturb the airways and inflammatory responses in the lungs. As hormone levels go up and down, new blood vessels in the lungs form and disappear, affecting the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. In addition, female hormones do not just cause breathing problems in women with asthma, but also in those who smoke or are overweight.

Researchers are working to discover how sex hormones affect the lungs in order to develop personalized treatments for asthma. Ideally, specialized treatments in the future will be gender-specific and take into consideration a person’s hormonal status.

Nathalie Fuentes OrtizNathalie Fuentes is a PhD candidate in the biomedical sciences program at Penn State College of Medicine. Her studies in Dr. Patricia Silveyra’s lab include the development of sex-specific therapies to treat lung diseases, sex differences in asthma-related lung inflammation triggered by ground-level ozone and the role of male and female sex hormones in lung disease. Nathalie is originally from Caguas, Puerto Rico.

 

 

Like Father, Like Son (and Daughter): How Your Dad’s Past Affects Your Future

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What makes your father the best dad in the world? Maybe it’s his sense of humor or the times he has taken you to the movies or played catch in the yard. Or maybe it’s the fact that he made healthy lifestyle choices before you were born. Recent research suggests that your father’s health before you were conceived (preconception) may change the way your genes behave to affect your future health. It almost sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but it’s real.

Studies tend to focus on the mother’s preconception health and the risks her baby might face later in life if she’s overweight. But a dad’s weight and early eating habits can also play a role, according to research published in the American Journal of Stem Cells. Researchers found that offspring of men who were obese before reproducing were more likely to have diabetes and be overweight. On the other hand, the researchers also found that fathers who had limited food resources in their early life caused genetic changes that protected their children—and even grandchildren—against cardiovascular disease.

Most people know that exercise is one of the healthiest lifestyle choices you can make to maintain your weight and keep your heart and even your brain healthy. However, research presented at the APS Integrative Biology of Exercise 7 meeting showed that offspring of men who exercised long term before conceiving had a higher likelihood of being obese and developing diabetes. This result was a huge surprise to the research team, but is it a reason to stop exercising? Not really. The study focused on how efficiently the body used energy on a high-fat diet. Limiting dietary fat and being active is still the way to go for most people.

Keeping stress levels low is also a good plan for dads-to-be. One study suggests that a man’s preconception stress may program his kids for mood disorders. Researchers found a pathway in the brain that transmits signals about stress hormones, and it may be passed down to the next generation.  If the signal is passed on to you, then your father’s stress levels could affect your predisposition for anxiety and depression.

These studies represent clues to learning how genetic material is transformed as it passes through generations. It’s also a reminder that following a healthy diet, staying active and maintaining mental health is important for everyone at every age.

Happy Father’s Day!

– Erica Roth

Putting Out Fires Hurts Firefighters’ Hearts

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As the temperature outside rises, our bodies make adjustments to keep our internal temperature constant to prevent us from overheating through a process called thermoregulation. This includes bodily functions such as sweating and widening of the blood vessels (vasodilation). When we sweat, perspiration evaporates from our skin to cool us down. When the blood vessels under our skin widen, our heart pumps more blood to our skin, which releases more heat from our inner body.

Our bodies are constantly working to hold a steady core temperature around 98-100 degrees Fahrenheit (F). This allows our organs to function properly. But when the temperature outside is extremely hot, our temperature can start to rise. A person with a body temperature above 104 degrees can develop heat stroke. This can cause dizziness, difficulty breathing, confusion, seizures or loss of consciousness. Brain and heart damage—sometimes permanent—can occur when body temperature climbs above 107 degrees F.

Too much summer heat can be unhealthy for everyone, but it can be especially dangerous to firefighters. The incidence of fires increases in the U. S. during the summer months. Firefighters fight almost twice as many fires in the summer compared to the rest of the year. On top of dealing with the extreme heat (sometimes over 700 degrees F!), these first responders face extreme physical exertion, mental stress and smoke inhalation on the job. All of these factors together can place firefighters in immediate danger of heat exhaustion, heatstroke and heart problems. In fact, firefighters are up to 136 times more likely to die from coronary artery or heart disease during or soon after they suppress a fire.

In a study published in Circulation last month, researchers may have uncovered several reasons why putting out fires puts firefighters at risk for heart disease. They discovered that a single, 20-minute session of fire simulation training—where healthy firefighters were exposed to physical activity in the extreme heat (about 755 degrees F)—was enough to injure their blood vessels, even though the firefighters’ core body temperature never reached above 101 degrees F. The problem: Although the firefighters’ bodies did keep their core temperature within a healthy range, their blood vessels did not relax properly immediately after the training. Also, as a result of the training, the firefighters’ blood clotted more easily. Damaged blood vessels and increased clotting of the blood can be very harmful to the heart and sometimes can lead to a heart attack.

This research shows us that even when we are able to keep our body temperature from getting too high, there are hidden dangers of being physically active in extremely hot temperatures. So keep your heart healthy this summer and don’t overexert yourself while outdoors!

Dao Ho, PhD

Dao H. Ho, PhD, is a biomedical research physiologist at Tripler Army Medical Center. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

In May, Take Steps to Prevent Melanoma

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With the weather getting warmer, you may be tempted to bare more skin in the coming months. However, sunnier days can increase your risk of skin cancer if you don’t protect yourself. May is Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. Read on to learn more about your body’s largest organ and how melanoma grows.

Your skin is composed of three main layers: the layer that you see (epidermis), the layer directly beneath the epidermis (dermis) and the deepest, innermost layer (hypodermis). Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, starts with an abnormal growth of cells at the bottom of the epidermis layer of the skin. These cells, called melanocytes, produce melanin to give skin its color.

Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays is a major risk factor for developing melanoma. Even just a handful of blistering sunburns during childhood or adolescence can double your risk of developing melanoma later in your life. UV exposure can damage and cause mistakes (mutations) in the DNA of the melanocytes. UV-related mutations that occur in molecules important for controlling cell growth can lead to skin cancer.

Although only about 5 percent of all skin-related cancers are melanoma, it’s the deadliest form, causing approximately 10,000 deaths per year in the U.S. People with melanoma that is confined to a small area (primary melanoma) have close to a 90 percent survival rate. However, the recovery rate is significantly lower in melanoma that starts in the skin and spreads to other parts of the body (metastatic melanoma).

Metastatic melanoma most commonly spreads to the liver, lungs, bones and brain. This is troublesome for several reasons. Once cancer has spread, it is extremely difficult to determine the original cancer type, making treatment problematic. Also, cancer cells compete with normal cells for nutrients. Because cancer cells grow quickly, the body often ends up sending more nutrients (sometimes unintentionally) to the cancer, allowing its size to further increase. Early detection of melanoma is extremely important, giving you the best chance for treatment and survival.

Visit the Skin Cancer Foundation to learn how to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.

 

Adam Morrow

Adam Morrow, PhD, is an assistant professor of biochemistry at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Walking and the Brain, Aromatherapy for Horses and a Whole Lot More!

Physiology, the study of function from microscopic cells to complete organ systems, encompasses a wide range of fascinating topics. The annual Experimental Biology (EB) meeting is a showcase for thousands of researchers studying humans and animals alike. Check out some of the research presented at last month’s meeting in Chicago:

Close up shot of runner's shoes

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Most people know that walking is good for heart health, weight management and flexibility. New research from New Mexico Highlands University reveals how your brain also benefits from walking. Each step you take sends pressure waves through your arteries and increases blood flow—and oxygen—to the brain. The researchers found that running also had a beneficial effect on blood flow, while sports like cycling that don’t involve foot impact were less likely to make a significant difference.

Dressage test

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Do you like the calming scent of lavender when the pressure’s turned up? Turns out, you’re not alone. Research out of Albion College studied the effects of aromatherapy on horses. Much like people, competition horses get stressed out when they’re transported from their home to an unfamiliar venue. Stress reduction therapies are highly regulated in competition horses, and non-medicinal treatments could go a long way to calm the animals before they perform. The researcher found that stress hormone levels dropped significantly among trailered horses that were exposed to lavender aromatherapy when compared to distilled water mist.

Two women rowing on a lake

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Olympic-caliber athletes appear to be the picture of strength and power. But new research suggests that high-intensity workouts without a proper recovery period could interfere with optimum bone health. A study of female Olympic rowers from Canada’s Brock University showed that the levels of a protein that stops bone mineral loss dropped during extended periods of heavy training. Bone mineral loss weakens the bones and increases the risk of stress fractures and osteoporosis.

These studies just scratched the surface of all the top-notch physiology research presented at EB. Read more highlights from this year’s meeting:

Why vitamin A and a high-fat diet don’t mix

The role of immune cells in the cause—and treatment of—preeclampsia

How an ice bag on the face can help treat severe blood loss

An “exercise pill” may be in our future

How orange essential oil reduces PTSD symptoms

 

Erica Roth

What Alcohol Can Do to Your Body Is Not Always So “Cheer”y

Alcoholic Beverages

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“Cheers!” is a word often associated with alcohol consumption, conjuring up images of celebration and good times. However, it is important to remember that alcohol is a drug as much as any other drug, prescription or otherwise. In fact, alcohol is the most widely abused drug in the U.S. Alcohol misuse affects every organ in the body and has both long- and short-term consequences.

Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis most significantly affects the liver, a major organ responsible for processing many substances in our bodies. The liver eliminates alcohol from the body through a series of steps using substances called enzymes. Enzymes break down alcohol into other materials called metabolites that the body can more easily handle (or get rid of). Some metabolites produced in the breakdown of alcohol are toxic. Excessive, long-term exposure to these toxic chemicals can lead to inflammation, liver tissue damage and even cancer.

Long-term effects of alcohol can cause several types of liver disease, including:

  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease. It’s one of the earliest stages of liver disease. Too much alcohol can cause fat deposits to form in the liver. Abstaining from alcohol can reverse the damage from alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis. In addition to fatty deposits, this disorder also causes scarring of the liver and impairs liver function. Mild cases may be reversible, but severe cases can lead to liver failure.
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis. The most serious of alcohol-related liver injuries, alcoholic cirrhosis leads to hard scar tissue that replaces healthy liver tissue, causing extreme damage to the organ. Severe liver impairment can lead to significant problems with overall health and nutrition, gastrointestinal bleeding and even death. Abstinence can’t reverse cirrhosis, but staying away from alcohol may prevent further damage and improve symptoms. Cirrhosis symptoms may also be managed with medications and medical treatment. However, some patients may need a liver transplant to improve their health.

Alcohol affects brain function, too. A recent study showed that even short-term exposure to alcohol decreases the brain’s ability to get enough glucose, an important nutrient. Abstinence from alcohol can help the brain recover, but healing isn’t immediate.

It’s not all bad news, though! Research suggests that moderate consumption—defined as one drink per day for women and two per day for men—especially of red wine, can benefit cardiovascular health in adults. However, moderation is key, and any drinking in people younger than 21 is considered detrimental to health and development.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. If you suspect that you or someone you know has a drinking problem, the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service can provide information and resources (800-662-HELP).

Audrey Vasauskas

Go Ahead, Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve!

Jousting Competition

A jousting knight wears his heart on his sleeve. Credit: iStock

In medieval times, a jousting knight would wear the colors of the lady he was courting tied around his arm. Hence, the phrase “Wear your heart on your sleeve” was born. Today, we use this romantic phrase to describe someone who expresses their emotions openly. How applicable that ancient phrase really is to maintaining a healthy heart!

In a landmark paper, a group of scientists discussed how stress and social interactions with others affected the health of the heart. It is well-known that stress is a major factor in the development of heart disease. This is because stress is a double whammy: It activates the “fight-or-flight” nervous response, and it causes inflammation in the cells that line blood vessels. Both of these events can damage blood vessels in the heart.

Research shows that positive social interaction expressing emotion is important for heart health. Support from a spouse or partner, friends or other groups can reduce stress and help you stick to a healthy diet and exercise program to minimize your risks.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, with annual deaths creeping up to 24 million. Reducing stress and anxiety is an important aspect of keeping your heart healthy. Exercise, yoga, meditation and even deep breathing can promote a sense of calm when tensions mount. Try running or yoga with a friend or join an exercise class to keep you on track for a healthy heart. Go ahead, wear your heart on your sleeve—it’s good for you!

February is American Heart Month. You can find more information about keeping your ticker ticking on the American Heart Association’s website.

Audrey Vasauskas

When You Can’t ‘Spy’ with Your Eye Anymore

Senior Male With Macular Degeneration

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Many of us take our ability to read this blog or see the faces of our families and friends for granted. For the 10–15 million Americans with a disease called age-related macular degeneration (AMD), however, the loss of this ability is a daily and devastating reality. AMD is the most common cause of blindness in people over the age of 60.

There are many causes of visual impairment, including near-sightedness, far-sightedness, infection and diabetes. Some of these can be relatively easily corrected with eyeglasses and other medical tools and procedures. AMD currently has no cure, and we are just beginning to understand its causes.

AMD is a gradual and progressive deterioration of the retina, the light-sensing tissue at the back of the eye. The disease affects the most sensitive portion of the retina called the macula. We use the macula to distinguish fine features and colors, and when we lose this function, it can be devastating. AMD slowly causes the photoreceptors—cells that make up the retina—to die, creating blank spots in the field of vision. This occurs when undigested deposits of molecular debris called drusen accumulate in an area that eventually starves the cells that support the photoreceptors.

Genetics is the main factor that makes you more likely to get AMD. Other causes may include smoking and an unbalanced diet. Avoiding smoking and making healthy dietary choices are good ways to reduce your risk of AMD. A recent study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell found that a substance related to vitamin B3 reduced molecular debris and inflammation related to AMD in patients with the disorder. Fish, meat, peanuts and green vegetables all contain vitamin B3.

As the U.S. population grows older, diseases such as AMD are likely to become more prevalent and have a higher social and economic burden than they did in the past. Researchers are actively working to better understand the causes of the disease and how to treat and prevent it.

February is Age-Related Macular Degeneration and Low Vision Awareness Month. If you haven’t had your eyes checked yet this year, now is a good time to make that appointment.

 

grant-kolarGrant Kolar, MD, PhD, is an assistant research professor of pathology and ophthalmology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.