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Do Hispanics live longer? Proving the Hispanic Paradox

Do Hispanics live longer? This was such a popular research question in the field of cultural psychology, it acquired the title, the “Hispanic Paradox.” While many studies were dedicated to answering this question, controversy still raged, which is why Timothy Smith, Chair of the Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education, collaborated with John Ruiz, University of North Texas, and Patrick Steffen, BYU, to produce the definitive answer: yes, Hispanic people do live longer.

To avoid being just another voice in the crowd of research concerning this issue, Smith and his colleagues did a systematic review of 58 longitudinal studies on Hispanic mortality. Longitudinal studies observe variables over a long period of time. They used these studies, which included altogether 4,615,747 participants, to anzalye what previous research had uncovered.

The 58 studies, which were published in the United States, reported Hispanic individuals’ mortality from any cause and compared it to non-Hispanic Whites and Blacks. Though the research did not usually include the specific ethnic heritage of the Hispanic participants (e.g., Cuban American, Mexican American), it did record general ethnicity. The research uncovered that Hispanics do actually have a 17.5% lower risk of mortality than that of the comparison group.

This finding leads to the question- what is the cause of the Hispanic Paradox? This confirmation has broad implications. Researchers now have a stronger foundation for hypothesizing and researching further into racial or ethnic health disparities.

Smith, whose research focus is cultural psychology, said the paper does not explain the cause of the Hispanic paradox. “It’s difficult to evaluate causation particularly when it comes to death and culture,” Smith said.

However, the professors looked at known causes of mortality risks, such as smoking and alcoholism, to determine if they played a role in the Hispanic Paradox. But Smith concluded that those factors could not explain the Hispanic Paradox. “Those factors we were able to extract from the study didn’t explain the difference between races. So it’s not attributable to smoking differences, alcoholism rates, or poverty,” Smith said. “People have assumed, and it holds true generally, that the lower your socioeconomic status, the higher your mortality rate is, but it’s not true for Latinos.”

Looking for answers about ethnic health disparities, Smith has also been involved in several other studies on mortality and longevity from a cultural context. One study looked at longevity as it related to social support and networks within a culture.

Smith hypothesizes stronger family connections are a reason for the Hispanic Paradox. “Latinos do tend to have stronger social networks and deeper family connections than Whites and African American,” Smith said. “Asian Americans tend to have a lower mortality rate and also tend to have strong family networks as well. There’s a common denominator there, so we’re assuming that might be part of the explanation.”

Smith illustrated how strong family networks might cause increased longevity by explaining what individuals from different cultures expect their life to be like as they age.

“After you turn 80, what are your prospects at that point? Well, your family will probably put you in a nursing home and you know that. So how motivating is that going to be for you?” Smith said. “As opposed to if you are in a Latino home, you know you are going to live with your kids. There’s no question about it. If you are in an Asian family, you will most often live with your children; they will care for you, and you’ll still be surrounded by loved ones. So at the end of life there is still purpose, meaning, and connection. Use of nursing homes vs. family inclusion may explain some of the differences in longevity.”

Connected to this topic, in another recent study Smith and colleagues examined blood pressure levels of recent immigrants. The findings showed blood pressure elevates once people immigrated to the U.S. “It’s part of that same overall trend, where lifestyles elsewhere tend to be a little bit more relaxed, there is more network cohesion, and social support,” Smith said. “But once a person immigrates here, their blood pressure starts to elevate over time until it actually matches that of Whites.”

Smith said that he is interested in continuing to research culture and its relationship with longevity. The paper was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

February 25, 2013