Hispanics live longer than whites or blacks, according to new US data. On average, Hispanics outlive whites by 2.5 years and blacks by 7.7 years. Their life expectancy at birth in 2006 was 80.6 years compared with 78.1 for whites, 72.9 for blacks and 77.7 years for the total population, says a report released by National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a division of the United States federal agency the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Possibly life-style factors and social-bonding could be behind the phenomenon, it is surmised. But no conclusive evidence is offered. Asians are not included in the data.
In 2006, the Hispanic population represented 15 percent of the total U.S. population and is the largest ethnic minority population in the United States, having surpassed in number the non-Hispanic black population.
The Hispanic population has a life expectancy advantage at birth of 2.5 years over the non-Hispanic white population and 7.7 years over the non-Hispanic black population. Although seemingly paradoxical, these results are consistent with the findings of numerous studies which show a Hispanic mortality advantage despite this population's lower socioeconomic status.
The report shows that the Hispanic population has higher life expectancy at birth and at almost every subsequent age despite a socioeconomic status lower than that of whites.
"Mortality is very correlated with income, education and health care access," says Elizabeth Arias, author of the report. "You would expect the Hispanic population would have higher mortality," similar to the black population.
According to the American Community Survey, persons self-identified as Hispanic numbered approximately 45.4 million and represented 15.1 percent of the total U.S. population in 2007. The Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) standards on the collection of racial and ethnic information defines ''Hispanic'' as ''a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race." As a result, it is a diverse population, although the overwhelming majority (64.5 percent) is of Mexican origin.
Very low infant mortality rates, despite socioeconomic characteristics that would suggest a demographic profile similar to that of the non-Hispanic black population. With the exception of the Puerto Rican population, all Hispanic subgroups have lower infant mortality rates than the non-Hispanic white population, despite its considerably higher socioeconomic status.
Cultural effects in the form of family structure, lifestyle behaviors, and social networks may also explain the Hispanic mortality advantage by conferring a protective barrier against the vicissitudes of minority status and low socioeconomic conditions. However, there is as yet no conclusive evidence that the cultural effect explains the Hispanic mortality advantage, the report notes.
The Hispanic paradox has been documented in a series of studies for more than two decades, but this is the first time the government has had enough data to issue national numbers. It wasn't until 1997 that every state had a Hispanic category on death certificates.
Researchers are struggling to explain why Hispanics live longer.
Research points to three potential factors:
Culture and lifestyle. Support from extended family and lower rates of smoking and drinking "may explain it," Arias says.
The "healthy migrant effect" argues that healthier people tend to migrate to other countries. Hispanics have migrated heavily to the USA. Others theorize that when immigrants become ill, they might return home and die there.
"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."
Arias says it will take more research to see whether there are differences between U.S.-born Hispanics and immigrants. Another issue: country of origin.
Mortality rates among Cuban Americans could be different from those among Mexican Americans, who make up about 65% of the Hispanic population in the USA.
"We will eventually crack it," Hayes-Bautista says.
However, the report also cautions that the procedures used in this report to correct for racial and ethnic misclassification and age misstatement are not error free and therefore some of the observed advantage may still be a function of data artifact. This report does not also address other factors that may explain the Hispanic mortality advantage, it adds.