Race, Health Care and the Law 
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Latino Elderly Health Status Inequities

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Vernellia R. Randall
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III. Healthcare Outcomes: Inequities in Elderly Latinos' Health Status

excerpted Wrom: FDULHPQQWOYIYZUNNYCGPKYLEJGDGVCJVTLBXF Equitable Health Systems: Cultural and Structural Issues for Latino Elders, 29 American Journal of Law and Medicine 247-267 (2003) (159 Footnotes Omitted)

The primary objective of health systems is to improve the health of populations. While wealth and the social and physical environment are important determinants of inequitable health outcomes, healthcare systems also play an important role. Examining the equity of health status is therefore a key indicator of equity in healthcare systems. Equity in health outcomes can be determined by making a number of comparisons between Latino and non-Latino white elderly in terms of mortality rates, morbidity rates, functional status and self-assessed health.

A. MORTALITY

Studies focusing on mortality find that Latino older persons have lower mortality rates than non-Latino whites for certain disease conditions. Cross- sectional data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that Latinos age 65 and older are less likely than older non-Latino whites to die from heart disease, cancer or stroke. The National Longitudinal Mortality study offers further evidence of the Latino mortality advantage: both genders and all Latino subgroups have lower death rates among middle-aged (45-64) and elderly Latinos as compared to non-Latino whites.

Among the Latino subgroups, Cubans have the most pronounced advantage and Puerto Ricans the least. Puerto Ricans have higher all-cause, age- adjusted mortality rates than Cubans (406.1 versus 299.5 per 100,000) or Mexican Americans (348.4 per 100,000). This pattern among Latino ethnic groups seems logical since the socioeconomic status of the Cuban population is higher than that of Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans. The Latino advantage for mortality relative to non-Latino whites is surprising, however, given the disproportionately high poverty levels, low education and greater risk profile for disease found among the Latino population. Some have referred to this pattern of high risk and low mortality as an epidemiological paradox.

The mortality advantage enjoyed by Latinos for cancer and heart disease, however, does not extend to all other disease conditions. Latinos of both genders, for example, have a higher mortality at all ages from diabetes. The mortality rate for diabetes among middleaged and older Latinos is twice that of the general population. In addition, Latinos have higher mortality from chronic liver disease, homicide and HIV as compared to the general population.

The Latino mortality pattern results in Latinos having a higher life expectancy relative to other racial and ethnic groups. In 2000, the average life expectancy at birth for the total U.S. population was 73.9 years for males and 79.4 years for females, whereas the life expectancy for Latino males and females was 75.2 and 82.8, respectively. Latino life expectancy at age 65 (males 19.1 additional years, and females 22.4 additional years) exhibits an advantage as well when compared to the total population (males 15.9 additional years, and females 19.5 additional years). Yet while Latinos live longer than other populations, evidence suggests that they do so in relatively poor health.

B. MORBIDITY

Some of the advantages that Latinos experience in the areas of mortality and life expectancy do not extend to morbidity. Data on the incidence and prevalence of disease among the population find that Latinos have higher rates of a number of diseases that significantly impair individuals' functioning and quality of life. It is estimated that nearly 85% of elderly Latinos have at least one chronic condition. Latino elderly experience major medical problems including high prevalence rates for arthritis, cognitive impairment, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, hypertension and cerebrovascular problems. Mexican Americans are more likely than non-Latino whites to report having high blood pressure, and Latinos overall have a higher prevalence of influenza, pneumonia, gallbladder disease, and infectious and parasitic diseases. Studies focusing on cancer indicate that Latinos are more likely to have cancer of the cervix, stomach, liver, esophagus, pancreas and gall bladder. Additionally, elderly Latinos are at a greater risk for developing liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, stomach cancer and cervical cancer, as well as hypertension and lipid disorders. They also have higher rates of undiagnosed hypertension compared to non-Latino whites.

One of the most significant and consistent findings is the excessive prevalence of diabetes found in the Latino population, particularly among Mexican Americans. This is particularly significant since diabetes is considered an "ambulatory sensitive condition," meaning that adequate outpatient medical care can reduce the severity of the condition and lower hospitalization and complication rates. Rates of non-insulin dependent diabetes are two to five times greater for Latinos than among the general U.S. population in both sexes and at every age. Latinos also have a higher mortality from diabetes than blacks or non-Latino whites, regardless of gender or age. They also have earlier onset and more severe forms of the disease. Among elderly Latinos, Type II diabetes is associated with muscle loss and functional impairment. These Latinos also experience higher rates of diabetes-related complications, which include conditions such as kidney failure, loss of limbs and blindness. Secondary conditions associated with diabetes can often be prevented or delayed with adequate medical care, indicating that the higher complication rates for Latinos maybe an indicator of inequitable medical care.

C. Functional Status and Self-rated Health

Many of the disease conditions noted above have consequences for physical and social functioning. As Table 1 infra demonstrates, older Latinos are more likely than non-Latino whites to report needing assistance in Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) that involve personal care functions as well as Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs) that involve household care functions. Within each ethnic group, the disability rates rise as income declines. Older Latinos who live in poverty are more likely to have ADL needs but are less likely to have IADL needs as compared to similar non-Latino whites (Table 1).

Latino elderly, on average, experience earlier and more functional declines than the rest of the older population. Mexican American elderly are more likely than non-Latino whites to report difficulty eating, toileting, dressing, preparing meals, shopping, using the telephone and doing light housework. Disability is not necessarily a static phenomenon, however, and some functionally disabled persons regain their independence, such as after post-stroke rehabilitation. Latinos age 60 and older not only have a greater prevalence of ADL and IADL difficulty, but also are less likely to recover from these difficulties when compared to non-Latino whites. For Latinos, living longer, therefore, may not necessarily mean more years with a desirable quality of life. One study estimated that the total life expectancy of Latinos at age 15 is two years longer than that of non-Latino whites (64 versus 62 additional years), but the disability- free life expectancy is two years shorter (49 additional years for Latinos versus 51 for whites). Accordingly, researchers argue that among Latinos, physiological aging tends to precede chronological aging so that Latinos in their late forties have health profiles similar to non-Latino whites who are age 65.

A global indicator of health status is how individuals self-assess their own health. Health status research commonly asks individuals if, overall, they would say their health is excellent, very good, good, fair or poor. This question correlates highly with later mortality rates as well as current morbidity rates and is considered a good global health measure. As seen in Table 1, about 20% more older Latinos than older non-Latino whites rate their health fair or poor, a gap that remains when only considering those living in poverty.

In summary, despite longer Latino life expectancies, significant inequities exist for older Latinos in a number of health outcomes including some chronic diseases, disability and self assessed health. The additional years of life, therefore, do not result in adding "more life" to their years.

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Professor Vernellia R. Randall
Institute on Race, Health Care and the Law
The University of Dayton School of Law
300 College Park 
Dayton, OH 45469-2772
Email: randall@udayton.edu

 

Last Updated:
 03/10/2010

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