What’s the Secret to Latino Longevity?

Latinos living in the United States tend to have “less education, a higher poverty rate, and worse access to health care” and “represent the ultimate paradigm of healthcare disparities,” with the highest rate of uninsured, lowest rates of health screening and counseling, and poorest levels of blood pressure and blood sugar control, as well as “other measures of deficient quality of care.” So they must have dismal public health statistics, right? According to the latest national data, the life expectancy of white men and women is 76 and 81 years, respectively, and that of black men and women is shorter by a handful of years. And Latinos? Amazingly, they beat out everyone.

Latinos live the longest.

This has been called the Hispanic Paradox (now also known as the Latino Paradox), which I explore in my video, The Hispanic Paradox: Why Do Latinos Live Longer?. Latinos have a 24 percent lower risk of premature death and “lower risks of nine of the leading 15 causes of death,” with notably less cancer and heart disease. This was first noticed 30 years ago but was understandably was met with great criticism. Maybe the data were unreliable? No, that didn’t seem to be it. Maybe only the healthiest people migrate? Turns out the opposite may be true. What about the “salmon bias” theory, which “proposes that Latinos return to their home country…to ‘die in their home’” so they aren’t counted in U.S. death statistics? That theory didn’t pan out either.

Systematic reviews “confirm the existence of a Hispanic Paradox.” Given the strong evidence, it may be time to accept it and move on to figuring out the cause. The very existence of the “Hispanic Paradox” could represent “a major opportunity to identify a protective factor for CVD [cardiovascular disease] applicable to the rest of the population.” After all, whatever is going on “is strong enough to overcome the disadvantageous effect” of poverty, language barriers, and low levels of education, health literacy, quality of healthcare, and insurance coverage. Before we get our hopes up too much, though, could it just be genetic? No. As foreign-born Latinos acculturate to the United States, as they embrace the American way of life, their mortality rates go up. So, what positive health behaviors may account for Latino longevity?

Perhaps they exercise more? No, Latinos appear to be even more sedentary. They do smoke less, however the paradox persists even after taking that into account. Could it be their diet? As they acculturate, they start eating more processed and animal-based foods, and consume fewer plant foods—and perhaps one plant food in particular: beans. Maybe a reason Latinos live longer is because they eat more beans. Although Latinos only represent about 10 percent of the population, they eat a third of the beans in the United States, individually eating four to five times more beans per capita, a few pounds a month as opposed to a few pounds per year. That may help explain the “Hispanic Paradox,” because legumes (beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils) cool down systemic inflammation.

In my video, you can see the mechanism researchers propose in terms of lung health. While cigarette smoking and air pollution cause lung inflammation, which increases the risk for emphysema and lung cancer, when we eat beans, the good bacteria in our gut take the fiber and resistant starch, and form small chain fatty acids that are absorbed back into our system and decrease systemic inflammation, which not only may inhibit lung cancer development, but also other cancers throughout the body. Latinos have the lowest rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer, and also tend to have lower rates of bladder cancer, throat cancer, and colorectal cancer for both men and women.

This “systemic inflammation” concept is also supported by the fact that when Latinos do get cardiovascular disease or lung, colon, or breast cancer, they have improved survival rates. Decreasing whole body inflammation may be important for both prevention and survival.

Asian Americans also appear to have some protection, which may be because they eat more beans, too, particularly in the form of tofu and other soy foods, as soy intake is associated with both preventing lung cancer and surviving it.

Hispanics also eat more corn, tomatoes, and chili peppers. A quarter of the diet in Mexico is made up of corn tortillas, and Mexican-Americans, whether born in Mexico or the United States, continue to eat more than the general population. Looking at cancer rates around the world, not only was bean consumption associated with less colon, breast, and prostate cancer, but consumption of rice and corn appeared protectively correlated, too.

Since NAFTA, though, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mexican diet has changed to incorporate more soda and processed and animal foods, and their obesity rates are fast catching up to those in the United States.

In the United States, Latinos eat more fruits and vegetables than other groups, about six or seven servings a day, but still don’t even make the recommended minimum of nine daily servings, so their diet could stand some improvement. Yes, Hispanics may only have half the odds of dying from heart disease, but it’s “still the number one cause of death among Hispanics. Therefore, the current results should not be misinterpreted to mean that CVD is rare among Hispanics.” Ideally they’d be eating even more whole plant foods, but one thing everyone can learn from the Latino experience is that a shift toward a more plant-based diet in general can be a potent tool in the treatment and prevention of chronic disease.

Data like this support my Daily Dozen recommendation for eating legumes ideally at every meal, and we have free apps for both iPhone and Android that can help you meet these dietary goals.

For more on the wonders of beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils, see my videos and love your legumes!:

What’s the best way to eat them? See Canned Beans or Cooked Beans? and Cooked Beans or Sprouted Beans?.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Bell Peppers to Help Ward Off Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder striking 1 percent of our older population and is the 14th leading cause of death in the United States. While we don’t really know what causes it, we do know that people with a smoking history only appear to have about half the risk. Of course, “[s]moking is hugely damaging to health; any benefit derived from a reduction in risk of Parkinson’s disease is outweighed by the increased risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease,” as well as lung disease, but this shouldn’t stop us from “evaluating tobacco components for possible neuroprotective effects.”

Nicotine may fit the bill. If nicotine is the agent responsible for the neuroprotective effects, is there any way to get the benefit without the risks? That’s the topic of my video Peppers and Parkinson’s: The Benefits of Smoking Without the Risks?.

After all, where does nicotine come from? The tobacco plant. Any other plants have nicotine? Well, tobacco is a nightshade plant, so it’s in the same family as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers. And guess what? They all contain nicotine as well.

That’s why you can’t tell if someone’s a smoker just by looking for the presence of nicotine in their toenail clippings, because non-smokers grow out some nicotine into their nails, as well. Nicotine is in our daily diet—but how much? The amount we average in our diet is hundreds of times less than we get from a single cigarette. So, though we’ve known for more than 15 years that there’s nicotine in ketchup, it was dismissed as insignificant. We then learned that even just one or two puffs of a cigarette could saturate half of our brain’s nicotine receptors, so it doesn’t take much. Then, we discovered that just exposure to second-hand smoke may lower the risk of Parkinson’s, and there’s not much nicotine in that. In fact, one would only be exposed to about three micrograms of nicotine working in a smoky restaurant, but that’s on the same order as what one might get eating the food at a non-smoking restaurant. So, the contribution of dietary nicotine intake from simply eating some healthy vegetables may be significant.

Looking at nightshade consumption, in general, researchers may have found a lower risk compared to other vegetables, but different nightshades have different amounts of nicotine. They found none in eggplant, only a little in potatoes, some in tomatoes, but the most in bell peppers. When that was taken into account, a much stronger picture emerged. The researchers found that more peppers meant more protection. And, as we might expect, the effects of eating nicotine-containing foods were mainly evident in nonsmokers, as the nicotine from smoke would presumably blot out any dietary effect.

This could explain why protective associations have been found for Parkinson’s and the consumption of tomatoes, potatoes, and a tomato- and pepper-rich Mediterranean diet. Might nightshade vegetables also help with treating Parkinson’s? Well, results from trials of nicotine gum and patches have been patchy. Perhaps nicotine only helps prevent it in the first place, or could it be that it isn’t the nicotine at all, but, instead, is some other phytochemical in tobacco and the pepper family?

Researchers conclude that their findings will be need to be reproduced to help establish cause and effect before considering dietary interventions to prevent Parkinson’s disease, but when the dietary intervention is to eat more delicious, healthy dishes like stuffed peppers with tomato sauce, I don’t see the reason we have to wait.

Benefits of smoking? See the tobacco industry gloat in my video Is Something in Tobacco Protective Against Parkinson’s Disease?.

Bell peppers may actually be healthiest raw, as I discuss in Best Cooking Method.

What about tomato products? Choose whole, crushed, or diced tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, purée, or paste. Why? See Inhibiting Platelet Activation with Tomato Seeds for the answer.

You may be interested in my in-depth video series on the Mediterranean Diet:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Best Foods for COPD and Peripheral Artery Disease

It’s great we can improve athletic performance by eating a few beets, but so what if you run 5% faster? It can be a fun experiment to eat a can of beets and maybe shave a minute off your 5k time, but there are people who could really benefit from a more efficient use of oxygen: those suffering from emphysema. Young, healthy adults eating greens and beets can swim, run, and cycle faster and farther, but what about those who get out of breath just walking up the stairs? Do nitrate-rich vegetables work where it counts? Yes–. Time on the treadmill in COPD pateints was significantly extended after two shots of beet juice. I discuss these benefits of nitrate-rich vegetables in my video Oxygenating Blood with Nitrate-Rich Vegetables.

Beet juice can also decrease blood pressure in young, healthy adults, but what about in those who need it––older, overweight subjects? Just one shot a day of beet juice (versus berry juice as a control) led to a significant drop in blood pressure in a few weeks. But within just a few days after stopping three weeks of beeting themselves up, blood pressure went back up. So we have to eat our vegetables and keep eating our vegetables.

Why did it take until 2015 to publish a study on using nitrates to lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure? You’d think that’d be the first group to try it on. Who’s going to fund it, though—Big Beet? Blood pressure medications rake in more than $10 billion a year. You can’t make billions on beets.

But that’s why we have charities like the British Heart Foundation, which funded a study to give folks with high blood pressure a cup of beet juice a day for four weeks. After all, high blood pressure may be the number-one risk factor for premature death in the world. In ten years, it could affect nearly one in three adults on the planet. But put them on beet juice and blood pressures dropped and kept dropping until they stopped drinking it after a month. With so many people with high blood pressure even despite treatment, the researchers concluded, “an additional strategy, based on the intake of nitrate-rich vegetables, may prove to be both cost-effective, affordable, and favorable for a public health approach to hypertension.”

What about those with peripheral artery disease? There are tens of millions of people with atherosclerotic clogs impairing blood flow to their legs. This can cause a cramping pain in the calves called claudication, due to lack of blood flow through the blocked arteries, severely limiting one’s ability to even just walk around. But when they simply drink some beet juice, they can walk 18% longer. Researchers measured the actual oxygenation of blood within the calf muscle and found that patients were able to maintain more oxygen in their muscles after drinking beet juice.

The nitric oxide from vegetable nitrates not only improves oxygen efficiency but also oxygen delivery by vasodilating blood vessels—opening up arteries—so there’s more blood flow. I’m surprised beet juice companies aren’t trying to position themselves as veggie Viagra! It could certainly explain why those eating more veggies have such improved sexual function, though that study was a snapshot in time so technically you can’t tell whether eating veggies resulted in improved sexual function or improved sexual function led to eating more veggies. However, it seems more reasonable that low fruit and vegetable consumption contributes to erectile dysfunction, rather than the other way around.

What about the most important organ… the brain? Poor cerebral perfusion—lack of blood flow and oxygen in the brain––is associated with cognitive decline and dementia. Researchers showed that the nitrate in vegetables may be beneficial in treating age-related cognitive decline. They showed a direct effect of dietary nitrate on cerebral blood flow within the frontal lobes, the areas particularly compromised by aging. This is a critical brain area for so-called executive function, the basic task and problem solving important for day-to-day functioning. The nitrite from nitrate has been shown to not only increase blood flow to certain areas of the body but also to act preferentially in low oxygen conditions, allowing it to increase blood flow precisely in the areas where it is needed most, and that’s what they found in the brain: increased blood flow to the at-risk areas of the aging brain. The only side effect of beeting your brains out? A little extra color in your life (they noted some of the study subjects started peeing pink).

Nitrates are one of the reasons I recommend eating dark green leafy vegetables every day. See Slowing Our Metabolism with Nitrate-Rich Vegetables and “Veg-Table” Dietary Nitrate Scoring Method. Beets are another good option and not just drinking the juice; take a look at Whole Beets vs. Juice for Improving Athletic Performance.

What else can we do for high blood pressure? See the following videos:

Why is blood flow to the brain so important? I go into depth on the potential consequences in Alzheimer’s and Atherosclerosis of the Brain.

More on diet and pelvic blood flow in men can be found in:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: