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Health disparities affect Hispanics

By Johnny Hernandez

SAN ANTONIO — “Somebody has to speak the scientific truth about health issues in order to empower people with the information to make good decisions on improving their health,” said Dr. Richard Carmona, former U.S. Surgeon General and keynote speaker at the 4th Annual ¡Viva Su Salud! Healthcare Summit hosted by St. Mary’s University.

Dr. Carmona served as U.S. Surgeon General from 2002 to 2006 and is today the vice chairman of Canyon Ranch, a Tucson-based life enhancement company. He is the CEO of their health division and president of the nonprofit institute.

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On Friday afternoon, the former Surgeon General spoke about the crucial health disparities facing Hispanics today — chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes that can very well be prevented.

According to Dr. Carmona, part of the reason for most chronic diseases is obesity. Over nine million children in America are overweight or suffer from obesity, as well as two out of every three Americans. The first and foremost solution is prevention.

Dr. Richard Carmona discusses health disparities prevalent amongst Hispanics today at a recent healthcare summit at St. Mary’s University.

(Photo: Johnny Hernandez)


“Obesity is the greatest accelerator and cause of chronic disease in the history of mankind,” said Dr. Carmona. “Seventy-five cents of every dollar we spend on healthcare is for chronic diseases, most of which are preventable.”

Dr. Carmona explained that we have had the scientific information mounting for decades, but now that it’s becoming an economic burden, America is finally awakening.

While in office, Dr. Carmona had to deal with national security issues such as war, emerging infections, anthrax, etc., and the government did not seem to focus much on obesity.


“If I’m telling you that we have nine million children today overweight, and this could be the first generation with a life expectancy less than their parents, where will the fire and policemen first responders in ten years come from, and where will all the soldiers and sailors come from if the pipeline is laden with young men and women who have high rates of diabetes, accelerated cardiovascular disease, high rates of cancer, high rates of depression, etc.?” Dr. Carmona asked. “So, this really is a national security issue.”

According to Dr. Carmona, some of the sad facts about America’s health disparities are that Hispanics, Native Americans and those who are part of a low socioeconomic class will get less healthcare, will die sooner and will cost society more money.

Statistics show that Mexicans make up two-thirds of the Hispanic numbers representing these health disparities, amongst Cubans, Puertoricans, Ecuadorians, Salvadorians, etc.

It is hard to ask and answer why, or to ask why is it that Hispanics don’t have the degree of cardiovascular disease that Anglos have. What protects Hispanics from heart disease, even though they suffer from obesity?

In Puerto Rico, they have the highest rates of childhood asthma in the world, so why all the health disparities?

Dr. Carmona said it is believed that there may have been a genetic factor — some kind of “tricky gene” maintained genetically overtime — that might have been beneficial to our ancestors long ago, but that is now killing Hispanics.

“It’s also our culture–the way we eat and the way we buy our food,” Dr. Carmona added. “And let’s not forget that, in the nation, Hispanics are disproportionately represented in lower socioeconomic classes because even if you have the knowledge and want healthy foods, if you don’t have the right supermarkets in your neighborhood you can’t buy them.”

Single-parent households now represent the average family amongst Hispanics today, according to Dr. Carmona, where supervision of what children eat on a daily basis is often overlooked.

Furthermore, Dr. Carmona said the population that is most at risk and struggling with these issues of health disparities is the Native American population.

“The reason that they are so disparate is because they have been forced into a western culture,” said Dr. Carmona. “In the 1900s, the average American lived to 48 or 50 years old. The average Indians lived into their 70s and 80s.

Why? They only ate organically and they were physically active every day, hunting and gathering, and they were a very robust society by taking care of one another.

“What the Indians had a century ago that kept them alive and robust and free of most of the chronic diseases we have today, we are trying to emulate now,” Dr. Carmona continued. “We tell everybody to keep moving, eat organically and don’t eat all that junk food.”

Dr. Carmona said shopping at markets where whole grains, fresh produce and meats are available, nothing preserved, can alleviate the struggling with such healthcare disparities, but the key is health literacy and education.

“Health literacy is really the currency that allows us take the best science in the world and deliver it in a culturally competent and health literate manner to those populations that we h
ave the privilege to serve,” said Dr. Carmona. “Anything we do in public health is taking the best science and translating it so each of you get it and change your behavior. In doing so, it reduces the disease burden, the economic burden, improves your quality of health and drives cost of healthcare down.”

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