Boricuas Have the Worst Health of NYC Latinos

More Puerto Ricans die before they turn 65 due to chronic disease than other Latinos in New York. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

On Wednesday, the New York City health authorities divulged the first, most complete report on the health of Latinos living in the Big Apple.

While the extensive study confirms what many already knew – that some Latino groups have high rates of chronic illnesses such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes – it revealed a fact that causes much concern among the Puerto Rican community specifically.

According to the report “Health of Latinos in New York City,” prepared by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), Puerto Ricans – whether born on the island or in the United States – have the worst chronic illness rates among Latinos and, consequently, are the group suffering the highest numbers of premature deaths (before 65 years of age).

The study classified Latinos living in New York City – who represent 29 percent of its population – in five large groups, according to heritage and place of birth: Puerto Ricans (30 percent), Dominicans (28 percent), Mexicans (14 percent), Central Americans and South Americans (23 percent).

Despite the fact that Boricuas are the group with the lowest numbers of uninsured people (7 percent, compared to 22 percent of Latinos in general and 13 percent of all New Yorkers), “they are more likely to have more adverse outcomes than other Latino heritage groups.”

As an example, 37 percent of Puerto Ricans in New York suffer from high blood pressure (hypertension) compared to 33 percent of all Latinos. An estimated 35 percent of all adult Puerto Rican males and 38 percent of adult Puerto Rican women are obese. When it comes to asthma, Boricuas suffer from it almost twice as much as the rest of Hispanics (27 percent versus 15 percent) and up to three times more than Mexicans, who only have 6 percent.

 Smoking and drinking soda

From the results revealed by the DOHMH report, it can be interpreted that many of the negative indicators the Puerto Rican population presents may be a consequence of an unhealthy lifestyle. A clear example of this is the community’s cigarette consumption, which puts them at high risk of developing heart disease, lung cancer and other health issues.

While Latinos in general smoke less than non-Latinos, Puerto Ricans smoke more than any other ethnic group in the Big Apple. An estimated 25 percent of them currently smoke, quite different than only 6 percent of Dominicans, 12 percent of all Latinos, 14 percent of Mexicans and 14 percent of New Yorkers in general.

Natasha Rodríguez, 37, from Puerto Rico, is one of those smokers. She said that she is not worried about the health complications the habit may cause her.

“I smoke a pack a day and I feel fine. I think I’m healthy,” said the South Bronx resident. Her husband, also Puerto Rican, consumes the same amount of tobacco.

“My dad has heart problems, and my grandmother on my mother’s side had diabetes, but I do not have anything,” she added, admitting that she has not gone for a health checkup in a long time.

“I can go years without seeing a doctor, unless I feel pain or something,” said Rodríguez, a mother of two.

Another risk factor in which Puerto Ricans stand out by a large margin is their daily sugary drink intake. This habit can lead to weight gain and obesity and put them at risk of developing diabetes and hypertension. DOHMH figures show that 40 percent of Puerto Rican adults consume soda products every day, compared to 30 percent of other Latinos and 24 percent of all New Yorkers.

Still, one of the most alarming numbers shows that Puerto Ricans have the highest percentages of people dying of unintentional drug overdoses. Opioids cause 80 percent of these deaths. Among Latinos who died of overdoses in 2016, almost two-thirds were Puerto Rican (39.4 for every 100,000 people), compared to 16.2 percent of all Latinos and 12.6 percent of non-Latinos.

Mexicans have diabetes, Dominicans hypertension

The report also confirmed a reality that, for years, has kept the health authorities on the alert: the disproportionate numbers of Latinos suffering from diabetes. In this sense, Mexicans continue to be the group most affected by the disease, with 24 percent, followed by Dominicans, with 20 percent, and Puerto Ricans, with 18 percent, in contrast with the 12 percent for the rest of the city’s residents.

On the other hand, Mexicans are also reported to be the group with the highest rates of alcohol consumption, with 36 percent, compared to 18 percent of Latinos in general and 17 percent of all New Yorkers.

When it comes to the health of Dominicans, the second largest Latino group in New York, the report states that they have the highest rates of hypertension (38 percent, versus 27 percent of non-Latinos), which puts them at risk of heart disease and stroke. It is believed that this is related to high intakes of sodium.

These heart problems could have complications, as Dominicans are also the Latino group who perform the least physical activity. According to the figures, only 53 percent of them said they got 150 minutes or more of moderate exercise per week, compared to 64 percent of all Latinos.

The paradox of Hispanics’ health

Health authorities said that, although they have fewer social and economic opportunities and less access to medical attention than other residents, Latinos in New York City are often healthier than non-Latino whites. In addition, even though they have high rates of deaths related to Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and drug overdose, Latinos as a group present lower mortality rates than non-Latinos.

Another significant conclusion drawn by the report is that, by and large, Latino immigrants who have lived in the United States for less than 10 years enjoy better health than those who were born in this country or have lived here for more than a decade.

In general, the five main causes of premature deaths among Latinos are cancer, heart disease, involuntary drug overdose, accidents not related to drugs and HIV.

Still, the report stated that Latinos have achieved great advances in other health-related areas, such as cancer prevention. It is estimated that Latinas over 40 years of age are more likely to have had a mammography in the last two years than non-Latinas (82 percent versus 73 percent.) Also, 73 percent of Latinos over 50 have had a colonoscopy. On the other hand, over 76 percent of Latinos said that they have been tested for HIV, 56 percent said that they use condoms, and 46 percent said that they have been vaccinated against influenza.

The study also analyzed other factors affecting the health of Latinos, such as dental health, fruit and vegetable consumption, teen pregnancy and premature births, HIV infection, hepatitis C diagnoses and mental health issues among youths, including suicide.

“As New Yorkers, we are proud of this diversity, and this report celebrates it by examining the difference between risk factors and [health-related] results in the Latino community,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett.

Moreover, the report highlights key demographic information, such as socioeconomic conditions, the state of housing and neighborhoods, employment, the burden of rental prices, and incarceration.

“As a doctor and a Latina raised in the Bronx, I know firsthand the complex social, economic and environmental factors that may affect someone’s health,” said Dr. Herminia Palacio, deputy mayor of Health and Human Services.

According to the report, Latinos continue to be the group with the highest number of people without health insurance (22 percent), compared with New Yorkers in general (13 percent.) Among Hispanics, the group with the lowest number of insured people is Mexicans, with 54 percent, followed by Central Americans and South Americans with 29 percent. In contrast, only 7 percent of Boricuas are uninsured.

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