First national report on Hispanic health a mix of good and bad news

Story highlights

  • Overall, Hispanics in the U.S. have better health outcomes than non-Hispanic whites in spite of socioeconomic obstacles
  • Cancer and heart disease are leading causes of death for Hispanics, which is similar to non-Hispanics
  • U.S.-born Hispanics in America are in worse health than those born outside America.

Atlanta (CNN)"Buenos dias," Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director, said to reporters at the beginning of a media briefing Tuesday to announce results from the first national study on Hispanic health risks and leading causes of death in the United States, information directed toward the nearly 57 million Hispanics in the United States and their health care providers.

The news is both good and bad, Frieden said. Overall, Hispanics fare better than their non-Hispanic white peers when it comes to their health, in spite of the greater socioeconomic burdens from higher poverty rates, language barriers and a lower number of insured individuals.
In fact, the report finds one in four Hispanics live below the poverty line, one in three Hispanics have limited English proficiency and Hispanics are three times as likely to be uninsured.
The two leading causes of death in Hispanics are cancer and heart disease, respectively. For non-Hispanic whites the causes are the same but in reverse order. However, Hispanics are about 50% more likely to die from diabetes and chronic liver disease than their non-Hispanic counterparts.
Dr. Ken Dominguez, MPH, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office of minority health and equity health and lead author of the report, said higher rates of diabetes and obesity may be the reason why.
"We know diabetes and obesity can lead to liver disease, cirrhosis and liver cancer and when you put that all together this may be helping increase their cancer rates." Dominguez said.
The study did not look at the reasons for the findings, so it's only a hypothesis.
It's not genetics, according to Frieden, who said something called the "Hispanic paradox" may explain why the overall picture isn't more grim.
"In spite of having worse risk factors they tend to live longer than those with lower risk factors and higher socioeconomic standards," Frieden said.
But a key factor, according to other research, seems to be that Hispanics have lower smoking rates. Smoking is to blame for two out of every 10 deaths in the United States, so lower rates in this population go a long way when it comes to health.
That message, however, seems to be getting lost on American-born Hispanics, who are more likely to smoke.
Being American-born does not bode well for Hispanic health in general. Those who are American-born not only have higher smoking rates, but also higher rates of obesity, hypertension, heart disease and cancer as compared to their non-U.S.-born peers. That's a sure sign that prevention is key, which is why health officials have clear advice for Hispanics, including: Don't smoke and if you do quit, exercise for 30 minutes a day, if you drink do so in moderation, get vaccinated and screened for hepatitis, and maintain a healthy body weight by eating fruits and vegetables and staying away from fatty foods.
Prevention could go a long way, because on average, Hispanics are 15 years younger than non-Hispanic whites. So, according to Dominguez, measures taken now to lower the risk of disease will carry long into the future to benefit health.
That benefit to the population will come from lowering blood pressure rates, reducing smoking rates, lowering diabetes rates and reducing alcohol consumption. (Hispanics drink less often but when they drink they drink more.)
While there have been other reports that put this population under the microscope, this report analyzes information from 2009-2013 gathered from four national data sets (the U.S. Census, the national health interview survey, national vital statistics system mortality data, and the National Health and Nutrition Survey) and puts all the findings together.
The new report also breaks down the Hispanic population into subgroups based on ethnicity and origin, such as Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Mexicans, which emphasizes the point that all Hispanics are not the same. This allows for better care. The CDC's message for health care providers includes accounting for each patient's subgroup.
But the new report may not be painting a complete picture, Dominguez said, in part because of the high rate of those who are uninsured. If they aren't insured they may not be going to the doctor, so they may not have a diagnosis nor are they getting treatment. Another factor contributing to the statistics may be that healthy immigrants come to the United States but when they are older and become ill, they return to their home country. Therefore their deaths aren't counted in the death rates and causes of death captured in this report.
But it all comes back to that prevention and advice for being healthy, which is good for the one in six Hispanics in America and everyone else, too.