Obesity and Cancer-Related Health Disparities in the U.S. Latino Population

Caitlin Cotter, DVM, MPH

This blog post is part of a weekly series focusing on different aspects of public health leading up to Public Health Thank You Day on Monday, November 21, 2016. Join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #PHTYD and visit www.publichealththankyouday.org for more information. 

A discussion on health disparities with Hala Madanat, Ph.D., Director & Professor of the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University:    

What are some of the underlying causes of health disparities for Latinos in the U.S.?

Socioeconomic status, educational attainment and limited access to health care options are the primary underlying causes of health disparities among U.S. Latinos.

How much more likely are Latinos to develop obesity and diabetes than non-Latino whites, and what are some specific causes for this?

Latino adults have substantially higher rates of obesity than do whites (42% vs. 32.6%, respectively). According to the National Health Examination Survey (NHES), Latino children aged 6-11 have about twice the rate of obesity compared to White children of the same age group. 

The causes for these disparities are highly complex. More Latino families suffer from poverty, limiting their shopping, restaurant and recreational options. They also have limited access to safe places to be physically active. Additionally, extra body weight may have different cultural connotations among different ethnic groups and immigrant generations.

Which types of cancer are more prevalent in Latino populations, and why?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer incidence rates are actually lower among Latinos than Whites, African Americans, and the overall population in the U.S. However, mortality is often higher. Breast cancer is the leading cause of mortality for Latinas and lung cancer for Latino males. The latter is related to smoking prevalence. It is important to examine these rates by subgroup, as Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans have much higher rates (these rates are actually higher than the national rate).

The lower incidence has been related to the Hispanic Health Paradox, which holds that (especially first generation) Latinos may have relatively better morbidity and mortality profiles in spite of having lower socioeconomic status and education than other groups. Specific causes for the ‘paradox’ are not all known, but there seems to be a cultural identity that is a protective factor especially for recent immigrants. This protection diminishes among 2nd generation Hispanic Americans.

How can research help to address the social determinants of health that have led to these health disparities? 

Research offers the opportunity to look upstream and assess how programs that support staying in high school or attending college improve Latino health, or how community gardens, and access to better produce and supermarkets can improve nutrition, or the impact of organized sports and safer and better parks and recreation centers on risk factor reduction. Research also offers the opportunity to understand how Latinos can benefit from cultural ‘protection’ and American economic opportunities concurrently?

It is important to note that addressing these disparities requires a comprehensive approach that targets factors at every level of the Socioecological framework and those that come from their families, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and marketing environments.

Caitlin Cotter is the Science and Policy Fellow at Research!America.

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