Researchers say Mexican immigrants who exercise regularly, eat wholesome foods and live in tight-knit communities illustrate why Latinos live longer on average than non-Hispanic whites and blacks.
That lifestyle may extend lifespan, as noted in a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last month. It found Latinos in the United States live on average 80.6 years, compared with 78.1 years for non-Hispanic whites and 72.9 for non-Hispanic blacks.
Experts call it the "Latino health paradox." People usually live longer if they have high incomes, high education levels and greater access to health care. Latinos are on average poorer, less educated and less likely to visit doctors than most Americans -- yet they still enjoy longer lives.
The CDC report -- the first to examine Hispanic life expectancy in the United States -- confirmed what two university researchers have been saying since the mid-1980s.
David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Kyriakos Markides, a professor of aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, have found in repeated studies that Hispanics have lower rates of disease, including cancer, stroke and heart disease, the three leading causes of death in the United States.
Hayes-Bautista called for more research to pinpoint reasons for the paradox, but he said diet and exercise probably are among the factors, as is a strong sense of community and close family ties. Studies say these can lead to better physical health.
Markides' research has found that Latin American immigrants are significantly healthier than U.S.-born Latinos: "There is no doubt immigrants are driving this."
Nearly 40 percent of U.S. Latinos were born abroad.
Markides suggests that people who emigrate from their home country are typically healthier than those who do not. Legal immigrants must pass U.S. medical exams and illegal immigrants usually must take physically arduous journeys to cross the U.S. border. "They arrive healthier," he said. "They're the cream of the crop."
In addition, Latin American immigrants are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs and contract sexual transmitted diseases than other Americans, Markides said.
But Latinos have a high rate of diabetes. Researchers believe Hispanics may have a genetic predisposition to the disease, Markides said. U.S.-born Latinos are more likely to have diabetes than immigrants because of higher obesity rates.
Elizabeth Arias, author of the life-expectancy report and a demographer with the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, said she has begun a study that will compare life-expectancy rates between Latino immigrants and U.S.-born residents.
The CDC had not released a report on Hispanic life expectancy until last month because of problems in how Hispanics were classified on death certificates, she said.
Similar problems have existed in classifying Asians, though Arias is doing research for an upcoming life-expectancy report on them. She said she expects to find they too have higher-than-average life expectancies, because many Asians were also born abroad and because Asians have higher-than-average incomes.
Dr. Mohamedali Patel of Lake Elsinore, Calif., said he's noticed for years that immigrants from Latin America tend to be healthier than other patients in his practice, which is about 80 percent Latino.
They are less prone to the stress that can lead to health problems, he said. "They don't live an aggressive type of life running after money or business. They live a more easy-going life, more laid-back and more family-oriented."
Immigrants are also more likely to accept physically demanding jobs that keep them in shape and to eat healthier food, he said. U.S.-born Latinos are typically like other Americans: They'd rather have an office job than pick grapes or cut grass under the hot sun.