U.S. Hispanics tend to live longer than non-Hispanics despite many circumstances that negatively affect Latino longevity. This is a fact that continues to puzzle the medical community. On the surface it does not make a lot of sense. Hispanics, for example, are more prone to illnesses like Diabetes and often suffer from high cholesterol. While the Latino diet varies from country to country, most of the cuisines pay little attention to health implications and Latinos continue to use unhealthy ingredients like fatty meats and animal lard. More alarmingly, Latinos in the U.S. have inadequate access to healthcare services / information and most of the new immigrants lack health insurance. Latinos are also more likely than non-Hispanics to avoid going to the doctor and to not engage in preventive care. So how is it, one must ask, that we generally live longer? Here are some plausible explanations based on my own qualitative research exploration.
The Mañana Syndrome
It is a well known fact that Latinos are generally more laid-back than non-Hispanics. It is also a scientific fact that by not stressing over issues our bodies are more able to fight diseases and remain healthy. My paternal grandmother is a great example of a wonderful person who knew the importance of taking it easy. She passed at the age of 102 with her laid-back outlook of life completely intact. I always tell the story of when the whole family gathered to celebrate her 100th birthday. I was unable to travel to Puerto Rico with all of my children and abuela wanted to hear how her great-grandchildren were doing. She sat next to me for lunch (I remember her having a large piece of steak) and said “I may have asked you this already and I’m sure I will ask it again; you will just have to deal with that; how are the children?” Despite her age she remembered the names of my children (I had four at the time) and asked about them my name. In trying to recall the name of my ex-wife she got confused; I recall that at that point she closed her eyes briefly and said; “it is not that important to remember everything; is she still being difficult?” My abuela knew how to avoid stress; and that kept her healthy despite being blind as a result of her Diabetes. The tendency to take it easy in life have often been criticized by those who find the mañana attitude inefficient; but it may very well be the key to a long and happy life.
A Purpose At an Old Age
I have conducted many interviews with Latinos regarding the idea of retirement. When it comes to retirement, Hispanics and non-Hispanics have very different points of view. Most Hispanics feel that their purpose in retirement is to help their family in any way they can. The tendency is to move closer to the family or with one of the family members. The role of the Hispanic grandparent is very important in the Latino family and many Hispanics rely on the grandparents for support. The idea of moving to a retirement community is foreign and uncanny to most Hispanics. In my interviews with Latino seniors I often hear comments like: “Why would anyone want to move away from the family to live with other old people? I want to retire to dedicate my time to my children and grandchildren; I want to be with them.”
My mother, who is 82, lives in Miami where most of my family now lives. Despite the fact that she has many family members and friends there, she often laments not being able to live closer to me (we live in New Jersey) so that she could help us out. I invited her to come over for a few days next month because she really wants to see the grandchildren; yet she forewarned us already saying that she is not coming on vacation. She said: “Last time I was there you were catering to me all the time and I did not feel useful; I may be old but there is still a lot that I can do, so start thinking of some things that I can help with while I am there.” Latino seniors demand to be a part of the family and work hard to make real contributions to the family. This cultural tendency makes Latinos feel needed and useful in their old age; and having a purpose in life is usually linked to longevity.
Not Wanting to Die
I have written here before about the Latino fear of death and how it is not as much a fear of the unknown as it is the fear of leaving loved ones without adequate support (See Here). Not wanting to die has been proven to be a key to staying alive. The simple desire of wanting to stay in this world in order to support the family may be a potent contributor to Latino longevity.
Exercise and Physical Fitness
While Hispanics may not be as much into exercise and physical fitness as their non-Hispanic counterparts; most Latinos exercise more than non-Hispanics because they are more likely to work in blue collar jobs that require them to be physically fit.
One of the characteristics that is generally shared by all Latino sub-groups is something that Hispanics call “chispa” or Latino wit. Latinos will agree that they know how to have fun. Latino gatherings always include music, storytelling, joking, dancing, and tons of laughter. And Latinos gather very often; at the very minimum Latino families get together for parties every weekend. Laughter is known to trigger the release of endorphins, our body’s natural painkillers. Sharing with family and friends also produces a general sense of well-being that contributes to a healthy lifestyle.
This is not to say that there is no drama or stress in a Latino gathering; there definitely is. But in my experience doing ethnographic work with Latino families I have witness the positive effects of music, dancing, and laughter. The Latino tendency to have fun is a very strong antidote to the disease ridden stress and negativity that often permeates our American society.