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Despite health risks, U.S. Hispanics outlive rest of population

Hispanic people in the United States live nearly three years longer than the population overall, say researchers who’ve released the first government study to confirm extended life expectancy in the nation’s largest minority group.

At birth, Hispanics can expect to live 80.6 years; that's about 2.5 years longer than the non-Hispanic white population and about 7.7 years longer than blacks. Overall, the life expectancy for the total population was 77.7 years, according to 2006 data used in a report issued Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics.The longer lifespan is apparent despite well-documented health risks for Hispanics, including higher rates of obesity and diabetes and lower levels of education, income and access to health care, say researchers who have been puzzling over what’s known as “the Hispanic paradox” for years.

“The reason that it’s paradoxical is we know that mortality is highly correlated with socio-economic status,” said Elizabeth Arias, the NCHS demographer who led the study. “With this population, that is not the case. The advantage we see must be explained by something else.”

Exactly what that might be isn’t clear. Researchers have suggested that the extended longevity may be the result of migration habits: Hispanics who come to the U.S. may be healthier than those who stay home, and older, sicker Hispanics may be more likely to return to their country of origin.

Sociologists also have suggested that social factors such as strong family bonds could boost lifespan.  Others have argued that health habits, including a simple diet and much lower rates of smoking, could account for the difference. But, as of yet, there’s no proof, Arias said.

“There is no conclusive evidence to support any hypotheses that have been proposed,” she said.

Hispanics account for 15 percent of the U.S. population, or about 45.4 million people in 2007, the report indicated. About 65 percent are from Mexico, but the group also includes people of Cuban, Puerto Rican, South American, Central American or other Spanish descent.

The new NCHS studies used death certificate records, census population estimates and Medicare records from 2006 to calculate the life tables. The U.S. figures can't be used to compare with lifespans of Hispanics in other countries though because of inconsistent reporting.

In addition to longer lifespans counting from birth, Hispanics could expect to live longer once they reached older ages, the report showed. For instance, a Hispanic man could expect to live to age 84 if he reached age 65, compared to a white man, who could expect to live to age 82, or a black man, who could expect to live only to age 80.

Several previous studies have shown that Hispanics live longer than the total population, but problems with misreporting of age and country of origin have muddied the data, Arias said. The new NCHS figures successfully correct the problems, but they, too, offer no reasons for the difference.

At least one Hispanic health advocate says that could be caused by bias on the part of researchers looking for links that encompass ethnicity, health risks and mortality.

“People want to think that if you’re brown and round you’re going to topple over into excess mortality,” said Jane Delgado, chief executive of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health. “People cannot believe we live longer. I think it’s very hard to accept that.”

She has reported for years not only that Hispanic women live longer than others, but also that they have lower rates of stroke, heart disease and breast cancer than non-Hispanic women. Still, Delgado says, public health messages consistently focus on the negative.

Nearly 29 percent of Hispanics are obese, compared with nearly 24 percent of whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 10 percent of Hispanics are diabetic, compared with just under 8 percent of the total population, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some 25 percent of Hispanics families lived below the poverty level in 2009, compared with 14 percent of U.S. families overall, according to new census figures.

“These messages do not match the experience of Latinas nor do they take into account Latinas’ strengths,” said Delgado.

But Delgado agrees with researchers on one important point: The enhanced lifespan enjoyed by Hispanics could be jeopardized by health habits acquired in the U.S.

“Human beings don’t make great choices,” Delgado said. “They start smoking, they start riding instead of walking places, they start eating foods that aren’t good for them.”

Some research indicates that extended longevity is most evident at older ages — and in Hispanics who are born outside the U.S., Arias said. The NCHS report provides a government baseline for more research to find out what’s really behind the longer lifespans, she noted.

“I think in the science community we’ve looked at the relation between education, income, health and mortality, but we haven’t looked at everything,” she said. “There may be something about family structure and social networks that may serve as a protective barrier against the negative aspect of poverty and lower socio-economic status.”