Nation’s largest study of Hispanic health seeks answers to group’s longevity

There’s a paradox to the health of Hispanics in America that federal researchers are struggling to solve: While they live longer than non-Hispanic whites — to age 83, versus 79 years, according to the U.S. Census — Hispanics also have higher incidences of weight gain, hypertension and diabetes, according to a study released Monday by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The wide-reaching Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, which included more than 4,000 participants from Miami-Dade among a total of 16,400 men and women, found varying levels of health awareness and treatment among different groups.

“One of the main goals of the study is to find out whether the longevity Hispanics enjoy can be maintained,” said Dr. Neil Schneiderman, a University of Miami professor of medicine, psychiatry and behavioral sciences who led the Miami field investigation.

The answer: Too soon to tell.

Among the Miami participants, men of Cuban background were the most aware of their hypertension and doing the most to control it. Yet Cuban descendants were among the least aware of their diabetes, along with Central and South Americans. Diabetes was least common among Miamians of South American backgrounds.

Hispanics make up 16 percent (or 50.5 million people) of the U.S. population, yet little is known about their health. That deficit triggered the NIH study, the largest of its kind ever undertaken in America. It includes for the first time people of many Hispanic backgrounds, representing the country’s diversity.

Begun in 2006, the multiyear project followed 16,000 men and women from the Bronx, Chicago, San Diego and Miami who volunteered to participate. Each was given a free, six-hour exam that included blood work, electrocardiograms, dental screenings and much more. Participants also monitored their sleep and physical activity, and received regular phone calls to update their health.

Most of what was known about Hispanic-Americans’ health before now came from studies of the Mexican-American population. The new findings represent for the fist time the country’s diversity of Hispanic backgrounds.

While groups presented significant differences in some areas – for example, fewer smokers among Dominicans and South Americans -- common themes emerged. More than half the men were at risk for diabetes, while most people ages 65–74 had high blood pressure. The majority of men exceeded recommended levels of dietary salt intake, while women were more likely to report depression and low physical activity. Broken down by age groups, the study also suggested a younger population whose health is declining.

Jovani Gonzalez, 30, one of the Miami participants, was diagnosed with high blood pressure when he was 19. He believes it’s hereditary. “Both sides of my family have it, so I’m on top of it,” he said.

Researchers were especially interested in the relationship between health and time in the United States. About 80 percent of the participants were born outside this country.

“It’s important because the longer people live in this country, the worse their health gets. The real question, an open question, is are they better off than the Hispanic people who were born here?” Schneiderman said.

Among the field groups, Miami had the highest percentage of uninsured participants in the 18-64 age group. One of the factors researchers will look at is the role health insurance plays in their health. For example, almost half the Miami participants were unaware they had a health issue, such as high blood pressure, until they underwent the physical exam - for many, the most thorough exam they’d ever received.

But other factors may be at work to enable Hispanics to live longer despite their health risks. One that interests researchers is the role that extended family play in providing mutual help and support.

Later this year, researchers will bring the participants back to examine their health and see if their risk factors have changed, in an ongoing process through 2017.

“At that point we’ll know whether there’s something unique that’s preserving the health of Hispanics, or whether their health is on the decline,” Schneiderman said.

This story was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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