Scholar: Health facts about U.S. Latino communities belie stereotypes

5 min read

Decades after predicting Latinos will become California’s majority, a leading researcher into Latino health argued Wednesday (Oct. 8) that the development might mean a healthier population.

David Hayes-Bautista said his research in recent decades disproves stereotypes of Latinos as unhealthy and unemployed, and instead shows that Latino communities across America are healthier than non-Hispanic white communities and that Latino men work more hours than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

Hayes-Bautista spoke at Harvard Medical School’s (HMS) Gordon Hall as part of the Latino Health Forum, sponsored by the Medical School’s Office for Diversity and Community Partnership, the Consortium of Harvard Affiliated Offices for Faculty Development and Diversity, and by the Commonwealth Fund/Harvard University Fellowship in Minority Health Policy.

Joan Reede, HMS Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership, introduced Hayes-Bautista, saying that throughout his career, he has stayed close to his community roots. Reede said she’s learned a lot from Hayes-Bautista and that his insights have helped change her perspective about the nation’s future.

A professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, Hayes-Bautista admitted, however, that his generation of scientists has done a bad job communicating that message to broader American society. He offered as evidence the recent debate over illegal immigration, in which some commentators portrayed an influx of Latinos as a poor, unhealthy flood that would overwhelm hospital emergency rooms in communities where they settle.

“All I’ve been hearing is very gloom, doom, bad, bad, bad,” Hayes-Bautista said. “Look at the data, that’s my suggestion.”

The data, Hayes-Bautista said, show that mortality from the nation’s three leading causes of death — heart attack, cancer, and stroke — are significantly lower in Latino communities in California, Texas, and across the country. Further, he said, the data show that infant mortality in the communities is similar to that of non-Hispanic whites, with lower rates of sexually transmitted disease, tobacco use, and drug use during pregnancy.

Hayes-Bautista attributed the better health to cultural factors leading to healthier lifestyles, but said that he doesn’t know enough to recommend that everyone eat beans every day. That research, he said, awaits a new generation of scientists. The work is potentially well worth it, he said, because if Latino health outcomes were projected across the whole United States, it would mean 23,000 fewer deaths from heart attack, 22,000 fewer cancer deaths, and 4,000 fewer stroke deaths annually.

“This needs more research, not less,” Hayes-Bautista said. “We have barely begun.”

In the 1970s, Hayes-Bautista predicted that Latinos would make up the majority of California’s population by 2040. He made the prediction at a time when the non-Hispanic white population was on the decline and schools and colleges were talking about closing buildings.

The reaction was immediate and negative. Hayes-Bautista was surprised that nobody assailed his methodology and that instead the commentary bordered on apocalyptic, saying that the demographic change would mean more gangbangers, teenage pregnancies, teen mothers on the welfare rolls, and more illegal immigrants.

Though health models said that lower-income communities with less education and less access to health care such as California’s Latino community would have worse health outcomes, at the time there was little data that examined Latinos separately from other groups. To find out, Hayes-Bautista designed a study of Latino daily life in California. He got cold feet once, he said, when anticipating the outcry if the study showed that the stereotypes were right, but forged ahead, bolstered by statistical data collected in Los Angeles County in a statistical tome that he called “the book that changed my life.”

The L.A. data was just the tip of the statistical iceberg that Hayes-Bautista’s subsequent work uncovered. It showed that what was true in L.A. was true in other Latino communities in California and across the country: for the major causes of death, Latino communities are healthier than non-Hispanic white communities.

The statistics showed that Latinos are not just healthier, but significantly healthier, with 35 percent lower rates of death by heart attack, 40 percent lower rates of death due to cancer, and 20 percent lower rates of death due to stroke. Further, when researchers looked at infant mortality, they found rates in the Latino community similar to that in non-Hispanic white communities, despite finding lower Latino rates of prenatal care.

The data extend to life expectancy as well. Global mortality rates usually show nations like Japan and Sweden with the longest life expectancy. When comparing the Southern California Latino community with those nations, Hayes-Bautista said, he was surprised to see that women in that community lived longer than even the longest-lived group, Japanese women: 86 years to 83 years.

“I began thinking, maybe Latinos being in the majority is a good thing,” Hayes-Bautista said.

That’s not to say the Latino community doesn’t have its health challenges, Hayes-Bautista said, because rates of diabetes and death of young men by homicide are higher.

“If Latinos are a bunch of illegal immigrants, gangbangers, and unwed teenage moms, at least they’re healthy. That has to count for something,” Hayes-Bautista said.

Hayes-Bautista said the results have been termed “The Latin Epidemiological Paradox” because the community’s higher rates of poverty have not translated to poor health outcomes. He attributed those outcomes to Latin culture and said that there is evidence that the more Americanized people get, the more they begin to share the mainstream culture’s health ills.

Hayes-Bautista said the effect of all this research made him change his perspective and begin to look for the health benefits of diversity. Each culture, he said, has beneficial practices that can be analyzed and translated for the broader public.

“It’s not that there are no problems, but there are opportunities too with multiculturalism,” Hayes-Bautista said. “Look at the benefits from diversity. Look at any group and there are strengths there.”