Even before COVID-19, life expectancy in the U.S. had undergone a significant decrease. But as the pandemic swept across the U.S., life expectancy nose-dived even further, especially for Hispanics.

During 2020, Hispanic life expectancy fell by three years, the farthest decline of any U.S. race or ethnicity, according to a July brief from the National Center for Health Statistics.

The shortened life for U.S. Hispanics is particularly alarming because the population tends to outlive whites, leading to the so-called “Hispanic paradox.” Whites generally have major socioeconomic advantages over Hispanics and other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., translating into longer lifespans. But Hispanics consistently outlive whites, hence the paradox.Hispanic family 

Even in 2020, despite high COVID-19 cases rates, Hispanics had a lifespan advantage of 1.2 years over whites, the NCHS brief said. Hispanics can expect to live to 78.8 years, while whites can expect to live 77.6 years.

Some of the Hispanic lifespan advantage is attributed to social behaviors, such as having strong community and multi-generational households. But there are vulnerabilities across Hispanic subgroups, according to a 2017 study in Population Health. Researchers examined data on Hispanics born in the U.S. or who immigrated to the country, including people with Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican heritage.

They found that overall, lower economic status and education was more common for Mexican Americans. But people of Cuban, Dominican, and Central and South American heritage often had comparable income and education to that of whites, the study said.

Health behaviors also vary in Hispanic subgroups. People of Latin American origin tend not to be smokers, yet some people with Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage smoke at higher rates.

Awareness of subgroup vulnerabilities could lead to improved public health prevention measures and messaging to Hispanic populations, said study lead author Andrew Fenelon, PhD, an assistant professor of public policy and sociology at Pennsylvania State University.

Setting aside subgroup variations and the severe impact of COVID-19, U.S. Hispanics can still expect to outlive whites. But that does not mean health disparities are not a concern in the population. Hispanics are more likely than whites to die from diabetes or liver disease, for example. About 33% of U.S. Hispanics are estimated to be immigrants, and access to adequate health care can be an issue.

Morbidity for Hispanics tends to begin in middle age, meaning people can live decades with a disability or illness, said Heide Castañeda, PhD, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, who studies immigrant families.

“Numbers on longevity are misleading,” Castañeda told The Nation’s Health. “We should not value longevity over everything. It is much more about quality of life, adequate health care, having a flourishing life rather than a long life.”

Improving health care access for Hispanics through affordable health insurance and eliminating fear over immigration status is needed, Fenelon said.

“One of the dangers in doing work on the Hispanic paradox is that, without thinking too hard about it, one conclusion you could draw is Hispanics are doing fine and there is nothing really we should do,” Fenelon told The Nation's Health. “But we see from the pandemic that the Hispanic life advantage is pretty tenuous. And a change in the underlying risk profile can mean large, disproportionate risks for a population that has a lot of other vulnerabilities.”

Read more about Hispanic life expectancy in the September issue of The Nation’s Health.

Photo by Aldomurillo, courtesy iStockphoto