I am a Latino living in the U.S. That means I will live to be at least 80, according to the recently released CDC report. Whoopee! Not bad huh? That means I’ll outlive the “average white dude” by two years and I’ll outlive “the average black guy” by seven years. However, before I start adding up the years and budgeting my savings and social security funds, I should consider that I’m also much more apt to die from diabetes or complications from it than just about any other demographic group in the country.
Oh, and by the way, my longevity is severely affected by one other factor: I’ve spent most of my life in the United States. That’s right. If I had spent more of my life in Latin America and then come to the United States, I would live longer. According to the CDC’s first national study on Hispanic health risks and leading causes of death in the United States, “foreign-born Hispanics experience better health and fewer health risks than U.S.-born Hispanics.”
Unlike my Mama, who I would watch prepare meals by painstakingly soaking the beans, cutting the vegetables and marinating meats for hours on end, today parents who often work double shifts depend on fast foods.
That’s right, it appears that living in the U.S. makes us more susceptible to “cancer, heart disease, obesity, hypertension, and smoking.” So what gives? How is it possible that Latinos –who on average work longer hours, make less money and have less access to health care – can be healthier than native-born Americans?
For starters, let’s understand that Latinos are younger than any demographic group in the U.S., which makes them, as a group, less apt to need health care or create a strain on our health care system. According to the Pew Research Center and the most recent Census findings, the median age for Hispanics is 27, while the median age for non-Hispanic whites is 41. For Asians and blacks, the median age is 32 and for all Americans it’s 37.
But that still doesn’t explain why is it that Pedro, an immigrant born south of the border will be more apt to outlive his son Felipe, born here. Unless of course we take into account what happens culturally to all of us when we arrive in America.
According to recent studies, Latinos assimilate at the same rate as other immigrant groups both past and present. But today, assimilation brings with it new and less healthy consequences. While in the past assimilation meant sharing an American culture of economic opportunity and bounties of farm fresh food items, today both of those factors have been severely altered.
The economic opportunity, while still very much existent, now consists of less pay for the average worker. In fact, when offset for inflation, the average worker in the 1960s made more than $10 and hour in real wages, while today the average worker makes approximately $7 an hour in real wages. So while my mother on our meager combined income of $11,000 a year in the 1960s could afford to buy fresh produce to prepare home cooked meals, today a working family is lucky to be able to afford the milk, eggs and other staples necessary to provide for an average family.
So what do they do? The answer is simple: cheap, pre-packaged, chemically induced fast foods. Unlike my Mama, who I would watch prepare meals by painstakingly soaking the beans, cutting the vegetables and marinating meats for hours on end, today parents who often work double shifts depend on fast foods. That means most children born in the U.S. to Latino parents will be less apt to eat expensive, longer cooking fresh meats and produce, and much more apt to eat pre packaged, saltier, fattier and more sugary foods. Experts also say that their unhealthy diet conditioning will likely remain with them the rest of their lives.
Welcome to America, amigo. Eat up or better yet, don’t. But while the American diet and our hurried lifestyle plays a large part in explaining why Latinos degrade their health while living in the “good ol’ USA, there is a much more menacing culprit: Smoking!
A study by the International Journal of Epidemiology found that lower smoking rates in Hispanics and in immigrants overall played a major role in their lower death rates compared to non-Hispanic whites. However, more assimilated Latinos tended to smoke more, thereby all but guaranteeing themselves a shorter life span, more comparative to that of their “Mad Men” counterparts who grew up here.
The take-away? At least when it comes to our health as Latinos, maybe assimilation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.