The Ethnic Health Advantage

September 30, 2011

For decades, scholars and public health officials have known that people with greater income or formal education tend to live longer and enjoy better health than their counterparts who have less money or schooling.  However, two demographic groups prevalent in the United States take exception to this rule: the immigrant and Hispanic populations.  Though many theories have been proposed to explain the increased life expectancy of members of these groups (in 2006, for example, life expectancy at birth in the United States was 2.5 years higher for Hispanics than for non-Hispanic whites), a new study proposes that the true culprit is an old, well-known factor: smoking, says Scientific American.

The results from a study focusing on tobacco use are significant:

  • In 2009, only 9 percent of Hispanic women were current smokers, compared with 21 percent of non-Hispanic white women; 18 percent of Hispanic men smoked, compared with 25 percent of non-Hispanic white men.
  • In 2000, smoking explained more than 75 percent of the difference in life expectancy at age 50 between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white men and roughly 75 percent among women.
  • It also accounted for more than 50 percent of the difference in life expectancy at age 50 between foreign- and native-born men and more than 70 percent of the difference among women.

The researchers who organized and performed this study are quick to emphasize that they avoided many potential traps in conducting these studies.  They accounted for the tendency amongst the foreign-born population to return to their country of origin when they become fatally ill.  Also, while some researchers have linked smoking habits to a multitude of diseases and conditions (some of them fatal), the administrators of this study held lung cancer as a necessary condition to classify a death as smoking-related.

While the researchers in this case predict that this life expectancy differential will erode with time (as Americans gradually smoke less and populations in developing nations smoke more), the results of this study are nonetheless substantial in explaining current trends in mortality.

Source: Laura Blue, "The Ethnic Health Advantage," Scientific American, September 30, 2011.

For text:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-ethnic-health-advantage

 

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