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Hispanics on Long Island, nationally have longer life expectancy than others

West Islip resident Miguel Bonilla, who arrived in the United States from El Salvador in 1999, believes one reason Latin American immigrants have higher life expectancies is because many have jobs in fields like landscaping and construction. He was a construction worker before he became a business owner.     (Credit: Barry Sloan)

A Latino baby born on Long Island today can expect to live until about age 87 on average, according to new research. White, non-Hispanic Long Islanders are likely to make it until 81, African Americans to 80.

That significantly longer Hispanic life expectancy may have its roots in places like Dulce Nombre de María, El Salvador, the birthplace of West Islip resident Ana Cruz. There, families tend to be close, residents often get around on foot and bicycle instead of by car, and people typically eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, she said. There are no American-style fast-food restaurants.

“My mother always cooked at home,” Cruz, 30, said in Spanish. “We never went out to eat.”

Researchers are still studying why Hispanics nationally and on Long Island live longer than whites, and have lower rates of cancer and heart disease, even though they have lower median incomes and educational levels, and are more likely to be uninsured — factors that usually lead to shorter lives.

The life expectancy numbers are compiled from National Center for Health Statistics data by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The analysis does not include Asian life expectancy.

Experts believe the Hispanic life expectancy has something to do with immigration. Immigrants in other Western countries also are healthier than native-born residents, research has found. They also link it to how Latinos often have closer family ties — within both their immediate and extended families — and stronger community and neighborhood relationships.

“Strong families and support systems are related to good mental health, and that is associated with good physical health and longevity,” said Kyriakos Markides, a professor of aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston who has been researching the topic for decades.

David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA, said, “Clearly the community, the civil society as a whole, has a huge impact on health care,” but most research on the life expectancy differences focuses on individuals.

More research on how social and family networks impact life expectancy also could answer the question as to “why do people not do so well?” he said. “What is lacking in their community?”

A study published in April that found Latina mothers laughed more often than white, non-Hispanic mothers is another indicator of the Latino health advantage, said Nairán Ramírez-Esparza, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut. The study was published in PLOS One, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal.

With Latinos more likely to be close to family members, and with socialization in general a more important value in Latino culture, they are more likely to have “conversations of quality,” she said. “That leads them to laugh more. If they laugh more, we can assume that that laughter will be a factor for their health.”

Diet and exercise also appear to be factors, which could explain why immigrants who have lived in the United States for 20 years tend not to be as healthy as immigrants who arrived more recently, Markides said.

Studies also show that the “mortality advantage” — lower age-adjusted death rates — is greater for Latin American immigrants than for their children and grandchildren.

“Children who grow up in this country become like other children around them,” Markides said. “They eat junk food.”

Ana Cruz’s husband of nine years, Miguel Bonilla, 37, said he has a less healthy diet since he arrived in the United States from El Salvador in 1999, and he’s gained a lot of weight. During the workday, he often picks up unhealthy meals from delis.

“It’s hard when you have two jobs and you don’t have time to stop for an hour to eat properly,” said Bonilla, who owns and drives for a car service, and co-owns a fencing company. “You have to eat on the run.”

In addition, people in his hometown in El Salvador walk and cycle a lot more than people here, he said. His father, who lives in El Salvador, has a car, but he usually prefers to get around by bicycle. Bonilla said that when he goes to a store two blocks away in West Islip, “I get in the car.”

Bonilla believes one reason Latin American immigrants have higher life expectancies is because many have jobs in fields such as landscaping and construction — he was a construction worker before he became a business owner — that require physical exertion.

But “you want your children to be better than you,” said Bonilla, who, along with Cruz, is a legal, permanent U.S. resident. “You don’t want them to hustle the way you did. You don’t encourage them to work in construction or landscaping and all those industries.”

One key reason for the Latino mortality advantage is lower rates of smoking, said Elizabeth Arias, a demographer for the National Center for Health Statistics who researches mortality rates, including by ethnicity.

Arias was co-author of a July report from the center that showed a steady decrease in age-adjusted death rates for Latinos between 2000 and 2017. Life expectancy estimates are based on death rates, which are calculated every year.

Yet there are signs the Latino mortality advantage may decline, said Noreen Goldman, a professor of demography and public affairs at Princeton University who authored a 2016 study on the topic that was published in the journal Research in Aging.

High diabetes rates among Latinos and growing obesity rates may decrease the gap between Latino and white mortality rates, she said.

In addition, declining immigration from Latin America will have an effect, because of the higher life expectancy of Latino immigrants compared with U.S.-born Latinos, she said.

Markides believes immigration, rather than Latin American ancestry, is the main reason for the health gap between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites.

He has studied immigrant communities in Canada, Australia and Europe and found that, as in the United States, immigrants in general tend to be healthier.

One reason likely is that people who leave their homelands tend to be healthier than those who stay behind, Markides said.

Today, there are more people immigrating to the United States from Asia than from Latin America.

Arias is researching Asian life expectancy and mortality rates. Data isn’t final, but she is finding higher life expectancy for Asians than for whites.

LIFE EXPECTANCY

Latinos on Long Island live on average several years longer than white, non-Hispanic and black residents.

NASSAU COUNTY

Hispanic/Latino: 88.6 years

White, non-Hispanic: 82.2

Black: 81.6

SUFFOLK COUNTY

Hispanic/Latino: 86.8 years

White, non-Hispanic: 80.3

Black: 78.4

SOURCE: University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation analysis of National Center for Health Statistics 2015-2017 data. The analysis did not examine life expectancy of Asians.

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