Whether or not you inherited Mami's hair color or her dark, deep-set eyes, the Latina way of taking on more than we can bear and putting everyone else's well-being before our own was passed down almost like a genetic code. But holding it down—sucking it up and enduring every curveball life throws at us, whatever the costs—has its downfalls and may cause other areas of our lives to suffer.
Chief among them is our health. "As a culture, Latinas are always putting our needs dead last," says Dr. Jane L. Delgado, chief executive of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health and author of The Latina Guide to Health: Consejos and Caring Answers ($12, Newmarket Press, amazon.com) "We are reluctant to seek help and generally won’t see a doctor unless we are truly sick and in pain."
In fairness, though, most in the Latino community know very little about health and well- being statistics. It was only in 1989 that the United States government even began to collect data and track the causes of death among Hispanics. Despite neglect, somehow Latinas tend to live longer than our white counterparts. We are less likely to contract breast or lung cancer. We have lower heart disease as well.
Still, the health challenges Latinas do face are serious ones. Here are 10 primary health issues affecting Latinas, and Dr. Delgado’s tips on what you can do to protect your self and stay healthy.
- For Hispanics over 20 years old, 10.4 percent are living with diabetes. And Latinas specifically have higher rates than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. What you can do: Start with a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. Lowering our blood pressure and reducing excess weight can decrease your chances of getting the disease, Says Dr. Delgado. Many people who are living with diabetes don’t know it. So see a health care provider regularly and get screened. For news about risk factors and managing the disease, check out the national at Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
- Latinas have higher rates of cervical cancer—about one in seven, says Dr. Delgado, and are less likely than other women to have regular Pap screenings. What you can do: Pap tests can detect cells in the very earliest stages of abnormal development. The precancerous stage is where doctors have the greatest success in preventing cancer cells from growing. All women over 21 and young women who have had sexual intercourse should get annual Pap tests.
- HIV/AIDS is four times more common among Latinas than non-Hispanic white women. And we are among the lease likely to use condoms. What you can do: Use condoms! You have control. Also, get an HIV/AIDS test annually so you know your status, or within six months after potential exposure or unprotected sex. The Centers for Disease Control) has useful recommendations and guidelines.
- Incidents of chlamydia among us were three times higher than for whites in 2007; gonorrhea rates were also higher. What you can do: Your sexual health is in your hands. Use condoms to protect yourself. Many of the most common sexually transimitted diseases don’t always have symptoms. Some women experience painful urination or vaginal discharges once they contract chlamydia or gonorrhea. But many do not. That’s why latex condoms—which offer substantial, though not 100 percent STD protection—is a good line of of defense. “Asymptomatic diseases like these underscore the need for Latinas to have a relationship, not just ER visits, with a health care provider they trust,,” says Dr. Delgado.
- Lupus, an autoimmune imbalance, hits Latinas more often than non-Hispanic white women and at an earlier age. What you can do: It is very difficult to diagnose lupus—which manifests symptoms like joint pain, fatigue and fever—and there is no cure for it. But the sooner you are diagnosed and begin treatment, the better your quality of life will be. Learn more at the Lupus Foundation of America, Inc. by visiting www.lupus.org.
- When Latinas suffer heart attack symptoms, we wait significantly longer than whites to get to the hospital. What you can do: For women, the symptoms of heart attack are not what you might expect. There may be chest pain, but we are twice as likely as me to experience nausea, vomiting or indigestion. If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 immediately; you should not drive yourself to the hospital. Get the facts. Check out the Office on Women’s Health for more info.
- Depression in the Latina community is more common than for non-Hispanic white women. And Latinas under 18 have the highest rates of attempted suicide among all teenaged girls in the United States. What you can do: There is no single cause for depression. And, or course, everyone has bouts of sadness from time to time. Depression is when those feelings persist for weeks or longer and take over your life—preventing you from doing things you once enjoyed. “We as Latinas need a better understanding of self care,” says Dr. Delgado. "That means seeking help—which is hard for us." For a confidential depression test, go to the National Mental Health Association website.
- Latinas who develop cancer are more likely to die from it—even those types with promising survival rates. Reason? We are less likely than non-Hispanic white women to be diagnosed in the early stages of disease. What you can do: Regular checkups and screenings = early detection = higher survival rate. The math is simple.
- Latinas are more likely than white women or white men to suffer from arthritis. What you can do: Dr. Delgado says the medical community does not know for sure what causes arthritis. However, smoking; excess weight; and inactivity increases the risks of getting it.
- Chronic liver ailments and cirrhosis kill more Latinas than other groups of women. What you can do: Blame it on the alcohol. Liver ailments like cirrhosis frequently occur due to high intake of alcohol. Sure, studies show that a glass of red wine here and there causes little harm (and may actually be good for you) but limiting your drinking can help you stay healthy.