Life Expectancy Higher for Latinos: What Can We Learn?

Last Updated Nov 11, 2010 4:14 PM EST

In October, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued a report that said that Latinos in America live, on average, 2.5 years longer than Caucasians (Latinos had a life expectancy at birth of 80.6 years vs. 78.1 years for Caucasians). The remaining life expectancy at age 65 is also higher for Latinos (20.6 years) vs. Caucasians (18.5 years).

This information has surprised researchers, since longevity is usually associated with income status, education, and access to medical care, all of which are lower for Latinos compared to Caucasians.

The CDC report also states that Latinos have less prevalence of heart disease, cancer, and strokes, which are all big killers of Caucasians. They are all also associated with the unhealthy habits that are more prevalent with the Western lifestyle than with other lifestyles around the world.

The reasons for these differences haven't yet been identified by scientists, although researchers now are on a mission to find out why. But that hasn't stopped scientists from speculating about the reasons, which include the fact that Latinos are:
  • more likely to have robust family support,
  • more likely to get exercise, such as walking,
  • less likely to indulge in self-harming habits such as drinking, smoking, and drug abuse, and
  • more likely to have healthier eating habits, such as eating more rice, beans, and vegetables and less artery-clogging meats.
If you've been following the research on longevity and healthy living, all these reasons for longer life spans probably sound familiar, and they sound right to me. Evidence has long been accumulating that the Western lifestyle -- which includes eating lots of processed, fatty foods loaded with sugar and salt, not getting much exercise, passively wasting time in front of the TV, and separation from family -- is detrimental to our health and longevity.

Some reports mention that younger Latinos in America are more likely to adopt the Western lifestyle and therefore may end up having health outcomes that are more like the general population in America. This is an all-too familiar story: Okinawa, Japan, currently has one of the largest concentrations of centenarians, yet younger Okinawans are adopting the Western lifestyle and are dying before their elders.

Researchers have also distinguished between "diseases of affluence" and "diseases of poverty." The diseases of affluence -- heart disease, cancer, diabetes, strokes -- are common in the Western world, and they are heavily influenced by the lifestyle factors mentioned above. Diseases of poverty are usually the result of poor public health structure, such as unsanitary conditions, unsafe water, inadequate nutrition, and lack of basic medical care.

Cuba provides more evidence for the above distinctions. They report life expectancies at birth for people living in Cuba of 77.6 years -- just short of the U.S. life expectancy of 78.1 years. Yet Cubans have far lower income levels and spend far less on medical bills, compared to Americans. It seems that they've largely prevented the diseases of poverty, yet they can't afford the diseases of affluence.

We're fortunate to have the public health infrastructure that helps us avoid most of the diseases of poverty. But it's up to us to choose a lifestyle that help us avoid the diseases of affluence. And given that most boomers won't be affluent in retirement, maybe that's a blessing in disguise!

More on CBS MoneyWatch
How Long Do You Have to Live?
Planning to Your Average Life Expectancy: A Bad Mistake

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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