Latinos outlive non-Hispanic whites in the United States by four years on average, and the disparity is even more striking in some states, according to a new report from Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council.
In the Washington, D.C. metro area, for example, a Latino baby born today can expect to outlive a non-Hispanic white baby born on the same day by eight years. (That same baby will outlive an African-American baby by an incredible 13 years.)
Latinos live longer despite being less likely to have health insurance than whites, facing higher barriers in access to medical care, and experiencing higher poverty rates – a contradiction that has led researchers to dub it the "Hispanic mortality paradox."
Sarah Burd-Sharps, who co-authored the Measure of America report, says substance abuse helps explain the paradox.
"Latinos on average binge drink and smoke at lesser rates than whites," she says. "And that's one contributor to premature death," such as by heart disease, stroke, or cancer.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, nearly 18 percent of non-Hispanic whites binge drink, while only about 14 percent of Hispanics drink to excess. The divide in smoking rates is even greater: more than 20 percent of non-Hispanic whites smoke, while just 13 percent of Hispanics regularly pick up a cigarette, according to the CDC.
Burd-Sharps says cultural factors may also lead to longer lives for Latinos.
"Where there is a pregnant mom [who is Latino], there is a community of people that makes sure she is getting the proper nutrition, that she is taking the breaks that she needs, that she's getting the right prenatal vitamins she needs," she says. "Social supports seems to be a really important protective factor."
Previous studies have shown social support for Latinos in the U.S. has a positive impact on both mental and physical health, and can make up for the higher barriers some Latinos face in accessing health care.
But Measure of America, which calculated life expectancy for all Latinos living in the U.S. - be they immigrants or U.S. born, also found Latino longevity could not always be guaranteed. The longer Latino immigrants stayed in the U.S. after immigration, researchers found, the shorter their life spans became.
Doctors and sociologists have previously attributed that to a variety of factors: America's fast and processed food, the superior health of many immigrants who choose to make the journey, or to communities and environments to which immigrants move, many of which don't encourage exercise.
"We've spent years wrangling with health care, focused almost entirely on doctors and medicines," says Burd-Sharps. "But actually the thing that has created longer life spans in the U.S. has much less to do with doctors and medicines and has more to do with the environment in which you grow up, in which you live, and which you grow old."