BRONX, N.Y.—New research by Dr. Luisa N. Borrell, chair of the Health Sciences Department, reveals the complexities of generalizing about the health of Hispanic Americans—a group of some 50 million people with ethnic connections to over 25 countries.
“All too often Hispanics are lumped together,” she says. “But that’s problematic. There is a lot of variation among the various subgroups.”
Take the issue of hypertension. Dr. Borrell wrote in the Autumn 2011 issue of Ethnicity & Disease about the disparity in this condition, as reported by Hispanics living in New York City. She found that Puerto Rican and Dominican New Yorkers have higher levels of hypertension—levels more consistent with non-Hispanic Blacks—while Mexican-Americans exhibit lower levels, similar to those of non-Hispanic Whites. Proportionately, however, Mexican-Americans represent only a small percentage of New York’s Hispanic population, even though nationally they are the largest group (63 percent of the country’s Hispanics).
Unless Hispanic subgroups are studied as independent groups, Dr. Borrell points out, this kind of quantifiable data will get lost in the mix. “This illustrates one of the main pitfalls of aggregating Hispanics as a single group,” Dr. Borrell writes in the article, which was co-authored with Dr. Barbara S. Menendez, also of Lehman’s Health Sciences faculty, and Dr. Sharon P. Joseph, a pediatrician and graduate of Lehman’s Master of Public Health program.
Another example is what researchers call “the Hispanic paradox”—while Hispanic Americans generally have the same or worse socio-economic status as non-Hispanic Blacks, they have more favorable mortality rates than non-Hispanic Whites.
In a forthcoming paper in the American Journal of Public Health, Dr. Borrell and Elizabeth A. Lancet, a doctoral candidate in the Public Health program at the CUNY Graduate Center, found that these lower mortality rates do not hold for all Hispanic subgroups. In fact, they were observed only in women, specifically Mexican Americans and Central and South Americans aged 25–44 years; Cubans aged 45–64 years; and Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans aged 65 years and older. Moreover, the paradox even varies among those women according to where they were born. Lower mortality rates were found among U.S.-born Mexican American women aged 25–44 years and those 65 years and older; island- or foreign-born Cuban women and other Hispanics aged 45–64 years; and island- or foreign-born Puerto Rican women aged 65 years and older.
“These findings suggest that the Hispanic paradox may be a dynamic process and may be affected by migration patterns in the Hispanic population,” says Dr. Borrell. “It might have to do with changes in the U.S. social environment hosting this population that may encourage or deter people from adopting certain behaviors and/or lifestyles. But these factors will require more research to determine the potential mechanisms behind this paradox.”
Dr. Borrell holds a D.D.S. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. She has taught at Lehman College since 2008.