For all who doubt the importance of living around your people — a new study may make you reconsider. Among African-Americans, those living in a county with an ethnic density of 50% or more (that is, where half or more of the population shared the same background) were 46% less likely to report doctor-diagnosed heart disease and 77% less likely to report cancer than those who lived in an ethnic density of less than 25%.
Counter to prevailing notions, researchers found that “living in the barrio or ethnically dense communities isn’t always bad for your health,” says Kimberly Alvarez, a PhD student at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She and Becca Levy, PhD, associate professor of Epidemiology and Psychology at the Yale School of Public Health authored the study. Through survey data, they looked at health outcomes of 2,367 Mexican-American and 2,790 African-Americans over age 65 living in communities with high percentages of African-Americans (New Haven, Conn. and north-central North Carolina) and Mexican-Americans (Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas).
Cultural factors could help to explain the phenomenon. “Communities with high ethnic density may be more likely to share values like respect for elders and have close-knit family structures,” says Dr. Levy. Earlier studies showed high levels of social support within communities of Hispanic immigrants. “These networks may facilitate better health behaviors and, in turn, better health outcomes,” adds Alvarez. “For example, information about free health clinics may be more freely exchanged in these communities.”
“Having this information is important given the rapidly growing population of older adult minorities,” says Alvarez.
The report appears in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health and online.