Health

Deep in the Health of Texas

Latinos constitute Blue Zone in heart of red state

In most rural places in the United States, low-income and limited educational opportunities are linked to poor health. Not so in one crescent of Hispanic southern Texas.

That’s news to residents — and their representatives. Norma Brewster had no idea she was living in a place where the residents outlive most Americans.

“That’s the best news we’ve had today,” said Brewster.

She works in the office of Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, who serves Texas’s 15th congressional district.

“We were eating tamales this morning, and they were pork, and a little greasy.,” she said. “But we must be doing something right. We are all in our 60s here in the congressman’s office, and we’ve been here for 18 years.“

In most rural places, low-income and limited education is linked to poor health. Not so in one crescent of Hispanic southern Texas.

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That something “right,” according to statisticians, is being Hispanic. The Social Sciences Research Council finds that Latinos in the U.S. live an average of four years longer than non-Hispanic whites — and District 15 is nearly 81 percent Hispanic.

“They have excellent longevity,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, a research director at the council.

There are two reasons for Latino longevity, she said. One is that Latinos are less apt to engage in a couple of the leading causes of premature death in America — smoking and binge drinking. The other reason is that they have strong family bonds, a key ingredient for an extended lifespan.

Family bonds, less smoking and less binge drinking account for Latino longevity, despite higher poverty and lower education.

While there are other congressional districts where citizens live even longer (California’s District 18 around Palo Alto, for example), what makes Texas’ 15th so exceptional is that it’s a poor, rural district. Most poor, rural districts in the U.S. do not fare well in terms of health.

This trend was confirmed in “Geographies of Opportunity,” the latest report issued by a special council project team called Measure of America. Its goal is to provide “tools for understanding well-being and opportunity in America.”  The Geographies report, one such tool, provides a breakdown of all 426 congressional districts in terms of health, wealth and education.

The report measured health by longevity, wealth by average income, and education by the percentage of people with high school, college and graduate degrees.

By and large the report showed what you’d expect: Wealthier districts near big cities and along the coast tend to have higher levels of health and education. This seems logical; if you can afford better health care and better schools, then you are going to be healthier and better educated.

The big exception is District 15, which cuts like a knife from San Antonio to the Mexican border. Despite ranking in the lowest quintiles for income and education, it ranked among the top 7 percent of districts in terms of longevity. The people here simply live longer than most Americans — into their early 80s compared to the U.S. average of 79.

The big exception is District 15, which ranked among the top 7 percent of districts in terms of longevity.

A lot of the credit goes to the close family networks traditional to Latino households. Depending on whose statistics you use, the Texas 15th — more than 80 percent Hispanic — is either the most or the second most heavily Hispanic congressional district in the country. (Vying for the lead is the adjacent 34th district, which also has surprisingly high health marks.)

“Social cohesion and family support is very strong [in the 15th], so even though education is lower, and income is certainly much less, this family support is protective for longevity,” researcher Burd-Sharps said. “Many people don’t realize how strong a protective factor family is for groups that face challenges affecting their health.”

One example: As an inherent part of their culture, Hispanic families tend to take better care of pregnant women than non-Hispanics, insisting they do less work at home — one reason that Hispanic babies tend to have fewer medical problems, such as low birth weight.

“And for 40 days after birth, the mom still stays in bed and everyone caters to her,” saidBrewster, whose family is Hispanic.

Hinojosa declined to comment on the report, except to express surprise at the high health grades, since so many of his constituents have no health insurance.

“This is the first we have heard of these stats,” his spokesman said.

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