WASHINGTON, DC -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released Tuesday its first-ever national study of the leading causes of death as well as risk factors, disease prevalence and access to health services among U.S. Hispanics. It found that while the death rate among the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group is 24 percent lower than non-Hispanic whites, the Latino community is hit hard by certain diseases and conditions.
"This report is good news and bad news," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden in a conference call with reporters around the release of the "Vital Signs" report, "A La Buena Salud - To Good Health!"
"There are some areas of health that are worse, some that are better, but they can be improved," Frieden said, adding that improvements can be as simple as a brisk, 30-minute walk three times a week, along with changes to diet to improve cardio health and reduce obesity.
The study noted that Hispanics are 50 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to succumb to liver disease and complications from diabetes. The CDC also found some slight differences in the leading causes of death among Latinos compared to whites.
For Hispanics the top five are cancer, heart disease, unintentional injuries, stroke and diabetes. For non-Latino whites it's heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, unintentional injuries and stroke.
The CDC looked at subgroups within the Latino community and found that different groups have varying degrees of health risk. For instance, while Hispanics tend to smoke less than whites - 11 percent compared to 24 percent - smoking among Puerto Rican and Cuban American men was high, 26 percent and 22 percent respectively.
"Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in this country," said Dr. Frieden. "We need to encourage people to quit and help them quit."
Less than half (40 percent) of Cuban Americans get screened for colorectal cancer, while about 58 percent of Puerto Ricans do - that still leaves many out.
Latinos born outside of the United States generally enjoy somewhat better health. Compared to U.S.-born Latinos, foreign-born Hispanics had 48 percent less cancer and 29 percent less high blood pressure, though they had 45 percent higher total cholesterol levels.
"People do not change their genes when they move. There are factors, such as a change in diet. The longer they stay (here in the United States), the greater those factors in the environment play in their health," said Dr. Frieden.
Latinos are almost three times as likely to be uninsured than non-Hispanic whites. Societal factors, the CDC points out, contribute to these barriers. In addition to the language (currently one-in-three Latinos do not speak English fluently), 25 percent live below the poverty level and 33 percent did not graduate from high school.
The CDC recommends that doctors and other healthcare providers use interpreters when needed to ensure a greater number of Latinos feel comfortable accessing health services in their native language, and that community health workers work with the population to educate them on free or low-cost services. The CDC also advises that these health workers, known as promotores de salud (health promoters) in Spanish, should use the resources at their disposal to talk to community members about health risks and preventive services.
"This report reinforces the need to sustain strong community, public health, and health care linkages that support Hispanic health," said Leandris Liburd, CDC Associate Director for Minority Health and Health Equity.
The CDC's "Vital Signs" report used census and health surveillance data to compare differences between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites and to look at Hispanic subgroups. While this is the first time it focuses on Latinos, "Vital Signs" is published the first Tuesday of the month in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which provides the latest data on several key issues related to health, including cancer prevention, obesity, tobacco use, and cardiovascular health.