Statcast Number 20 Transcript

Arias: Research has been showing for the last 20 years that Hispanics have lower mortality than the non-Hispanic population despite their lower socioeconomic status.

Statcast: October 13, 2010

Announcer: We’re here with Elizabeth Arias, a demographer with the National Center for Health Statistics. Elizabeth is the lead author on a new report on life expectancy among Hispanics in the U.S.

Many people will find it surprising that Hispanics in the U.S. have longer life expectancy than other groups. Were you surprised that our data showed that?

Arias: No I was not surprised because research has been showing for the last 20 years that Hispanics have lower mortality than the non-Hispanic population despite their lower socioeconomic status.

Announcer: Do we have any idea why Hispanics have longer life expectancies?

Arias: Well there is no conclusive evidence to support any of the hypotheses that have been proposed. There are three main hypotheses that have been proposed. One is that there is a problem with the data we are using; that there is a data artifact. Another is that it is a result of migration factors. For instance, where two things can happen within the migration; that is one that immigrants are selected for better health so they were healthier when they get to the U.S. than the general U.S. population. The other one is return migration that immigrants return home when they are sick so they are not captured in the vital statistics in the U.S. and another explanation is that it is real that it is cultural factors such as family composition social networks behaviors such as smoking diet but there is no conclusive evidence to support any of these except for with this report we were able to eliminate the explanation that it is a result of data problems. Unfortunately we cannot with vital statistics at this time address the other two possibilities as in migration or cultural factors.

Announcer: You mentioned a socioeconomic paradox, what about actual health paradoxes. For example, Mexican Americans have higher rates of obesity for example. Is that surprising other health indicators might not work favorably and yet still we have this higher life expectancy?

Arias: Well it isn’t surprising because one has to take into account what segments of the Hispanic population you’re looking at. For example, some research shows that the foreign born population is healthier, has lower rates of obesity or diabetes and it is the U.S. born population that has the higher rates.

Announcer: You mentioned differences between foreign born and U.S. born, what about differences among the various Hispanic groups themselves. Do we know which groups have higher life expectancy between Puerto Ricans and El Salvadorians or anything like that?

Arias: No, at this point I can’t speak to that because I have not estimated the life tables separately for each of the subgroups. What I can say is that in just looking at the mortality in general, and more specifically, infant mortality we can see that some groups within the Hispanic population some groups have lower mortality that other groups. For example, the Puerto Rican population is unusual in comparison to the other Hispanic subgroups in that it has relatively high mortality whereas the others Hispanic subgroups have very low mortality. You see this especially in the infant mortality rates where groups, such as the Mexican population and the Central American population, have very, very low rates of infant mortality yet they have very high rates of poverty.

Announcer: In general, do these findings suggest that Hispanics in the U.S. may be healthier than non-Hispanic white or non-Hispanic black people?

Arias: The findings can imply that the population is healthier overall. It could be a function of behaviors related to cultures such as smoking. We do know, for instance, that Hispanic women especially foreign born Hispanic women have very low rates of smoking in comparison to U.S. born Hispanics and non-Hispanics. Diet may be a factor related to cultural behaviors so that could be an explanation. Another explanation could be that immigrants are selected for better health so they are already a select group who migrate tend to be healthier than the people who stay.

Announcer: With the Hispanic population growing in the U.S. as it is, could we then expect to see overall life expectancy increase as a result of the findings of the research?

Arias: Well that could be the case if the mortality profile that we are seeing of the Hispanic population remains. But other research does suggest that U.S. born Hispanics have poorer health outcomes than foreign born Hispanics. As Hispanics Americanize or acculturate, they have a higher prevalence of smoking, of obesity so that may diminish or eliminate the advantage that they show when they first come to the U.S. But I cannot say that definitively until I estimate life tables for the groups by nativity and by subgroup.

Announcer: Our thanks to Elizabeth Arias for joining us on this edition of statcast. Statcast is a production of the public affairs office of the National Center for Health Statistics.