The Hispanic Mortality Paradox: Why Do Latinos Outlive Other Americans?

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Mark Edward Atkinson/Blend Images/Corbis

For the first time, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has collected national life expectancy data for the Hispanic population, and backed up the surprising findings of past studies: the average life expectancy of a Hispanic baby born in 2006 was 80.6 years. That’s 2.5 years longer than the life expectancy for whites, 7.7 years longer than for blacks and nearly three years higher than the national average.

The results are interesting because the Hispanic population, which makes up 15% of the American public, has several characteristics that are traditionally associated with shorter life: more obesity, less education and more poverty; 18.9% of Latinos are poor, compared with 6.1% of whites. (One exception to the paradox: Hispanics’ median income is higher than blacks’, and fewer Hispanics than blacks are poor, making it unsurprising that average Hispanic life expectancy is higher.) (More on Paradise Paradox: Why Life in Hawaii Leads to Early Death).

Trying to understand why Hispanics live longer is difficult because the Hispanic community as a whole is so diverse. But their diversity may well explain the mortality data. One statistical advantage may be the large number of Hispanic immigrants: 69% of the non-Mexican Latino population is foreign-born (49% of Mexican-Americans are foreign-born); it may be that healthier and longer-lived people tend to emigrate to other countries. Cubans immigrants, for example — who had their major migration to the U.S. in the 1950s — have a larger percentage of elderly individuals than American-born white or black communities.

Also, while the Hispanic population on average is poorer and less educated, income and education vary greatly between specific Hispanic communities. For instance, 25% of Dominicans fall below the poverty line and 15% have a college degree; by comparison, 25% of Cubans have graduated from college, while 9.4% of those of Spanish descent are poor. (More on Photos: A Global Look at Longevity)

Statisticians are scrambling to explain the Hispanic paradox, and as USA Today reports, the research is just beginning:

“I don’t think anyone has a great idea,” says Carl Haub, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau. “We might want to see what Hispanics are doing and try to emulate them.”

Solving the puzzle may help the nation deal with health care issues because Hispanics use health services less — they make fewer doctors visits and spend less time in hospitals, [David] Hayes-Baustista, [director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine] says.

“It’s clearly something in the Latino culture,” he says. “If this was the ‘healthy migrant effect,’ we would see it in all immigrant groups. It seems to be something in what Latinos do.”

The report acknowledged that misidentification of age and ethnicity on death certificates may have contributed some error to the data.

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