Don’t Ask Your Doctor How to Live Longer; Ask Hispanic Families

A recent report by the National Center for Health Statistics found that, as of 2006, the life expectancy of U.S. Hispanics at birth is 80.6 years.  This is 2.5 years more than non-Hispanic whites and 8 years more than black people.  This finding is especially surprising because, compared to non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics have lower median family incomes, higher poverty rates and lower rates of advanced college education – all factors associated with better health.  So what explains this paradox?

The studies’ author, Elizabeth Arias, hypothesizes that the Hispanic longevity may have to do with cultural factors such as their close family and social networks.

This is a reasonable hypothesis based on related research.  It is clear that people’s general health and longevity is closely related to their associational life.

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s book on the functions of associational life, he presents abundant data demonstrating the importance of associations and communal life in determining our health status.

All of this data indicates that our community life is a critical determinant of how often we’ll be sick (morbidity) and how long we will live (mortality).  Nonetheless, our national policymakers continue to act as though access to medicine is the critical factor in our health status.  They appear to ignore those epidemiologists who find that medicine may be a critical factor in determining only 10 – 15 % of our health status. If policy-makers were seriously concerned about health, more of the focus would be on supporting and strengthening community life.

At least one of our policy-shapers seems to understand this fact.  First Lady Michelle Obama recently announced her support of a national initiative to tackle the obesity issue.  In her opening announcement, she said that the federal government can do a few limited things, but that the real change depended on local communities.

What can local communities do?  We already know about programs to reduce weight and encourage exercise. However they are of limited effectiveness, because they are outside institutional interventions rather than changes from within the community and the relationships there.

In reality, changing what people eat is a cultural issue that is an expression of community practice.  When we try to alter what and how people eat, we are at the heart of culture – food, how we speak, what we sing, how we pray and how we use our bodies.  The Mediterranean diet is one manifestation of a culture that has developed healthy ways of eating.  Those ways were not the product of policies or programs.  So we face an unusual challenge.  Can we grow healthful community cultures?  Perhaps we can begin by looking closely at Hispanic families and their social relationships and learn there how to recapture the health-giving power of our own communities.

~ John ~

About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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