CHICAGO — Latino Chicagoans have seen their life expectancy drop by more than seven years since 2012 — the steepest decline among any racial and ethnic group in the city.
In 2012, the life expectancy for Latino residents was 83.1 years; but that’s fallen to 75.9 years as of 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the health department. In comparison, Chicagoans overall saw their life expectancy drop by 3.4 years during that time, though white Chicagoans’ life expectancy has remained unchanged.
The fall has been fueled by Latinos facing barriers to health care, living in food deserts and dealing with stress and instability, experts said. They also face barriers to care that fits their cultural and linguistic needs, experts said.
COVID-19 has also played a role in the drop, as Latinos faced a disproportionate number of deaths from the virus, which became the No. 2 killer of Chicagoans in 2020. Latino Chicagoans’ life expectancy dropped more than three years between 2019 and 2020, the biggest fall any racial or ethnic group saw after COVID-19 came to the city.
Experts said more money and attention are needed to give Latino residents reliable health care and address the root causes of the life expectancy gap.
“We know we have to get more money, we have to come up with another structure, because the ones that we have right now are very, very unique and specific for COVID-19,” said Dr. Geraldine Luna, medical director of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “We just see that we need to focus on the real problems of the community, and move to create these relationships.”
‘Our Health Care Infrastructure In The Southwest Side Is Just Abysmal‘
Health experts and advocates said Latino Chicagoans can face numerous barriers to accessing health care, which could be a factor in their declining life expectancy.
Among those barriers: Some worry they can’t trust the government or providers, and some don’t know what care they qualify for, experts said.
Such barriers can prevent residents from getting treatment for chronic illnesses — and, more recently, there’s been confusion about what sort of COVID-19 care uninsured or undocumented people are eligible for, experts said. Latinos lagged behind some other groups in getting vaccinated when the shots first came out, though they’ve begun to catch up.
“That is the one thing that I hear over and over and over again, that they would rather not have a vaccine or rather not seek assistance if this could potentially come in some way and get back to the government, and they would get in trouble,” said Jadhira Sanchez, assistant director of health at Enlace. Enlace is dedicated to improving the lives of residents of Little Village, a Latino stronghold.
Sanchez also said a language barrier can be a huge obstacle, with some Spanish-speaking community members uncomfortable going somewhere where their primary language isn’t spoken.
Sonia Ayala, who oversees the care management team at Esperanza Health, also said language or culture barriers can impact Latino residents’ ability to find reliable health care. Esperanza has tried to bridge the gap by connecting with uninsured and undocumented patients, which has made those residents more trusting in its care, she said.
Esperanza is opening another location in June at Karlov Avenue and 63rd Street in West Lawn. It will have providers focused on adult medicine, gynecology, behavioral health and pediatric care.
But Southwest Side neighborhoods — which are home to larger Latino populations — need more hospitals and federally qualified health care centers that have skills like Esperanza’s to address the unique needs of Latinos, said Enrique Mendoza, a community health organizer with The Southwest Collective.
“Our health care infrastructure in the Southwest Side is just abysmal,” he said. “You just don’t have those access points for the community to go in and get the care that they need to get into preventative care. And I think it kind of creates this culture of not taking care.”
Latinos also have seen their life expectancy drop because they are more likely than some other populations to face systemic issues that prey upon people’s health, including unstable living conditions, lower-paying jobs and the daily stresses that come with being in a precarious situation, experts said.
Luna said constantly dealing with stressful situations, like losing a job or worrying about housing, can have physical repercussions on a person’s health.
“Not being able to pay your bills increases your cortisol level in your body, makes you more prone to getting diseases because it brings down your immune system,” Luna said.
Ayala also said she thinks it can be difficult for patients to make their health a priority if they’re worried about their basic needs.
“It’s definitely hard to manage those conditions if it’s not the patient’s priority,” Ayala said. “Because if they’re kind of trying to figure out their housing situation or can’t really pay their rent or can’t get to these [doctor] appointments, I think it’s really hard to manage.
“I feel like it’s just like one barrier after the other — and then I think their chronic condition gets pushed aside.”
Mendoza, who works primarily in Garfield Ridge, West Lawn and Archer Heights, said financial insecurity can also make it harder for people to prioritize their health.
And Latino Chicagoans face unique cultural and lifestyle situations that can play a role in their health.
One example: Latino Chicagoans sometimes live in multi-generational homes where family members support each other. During the pandemic, that meant they faced obstacles when trying to social distance or quarantine from each other, Mendoza said.
That kind of arrangement also can lead to older family members not wanting to burden the younger generation with medical debt, he said.
‘What if your abuelita doesn’t want to go [to the doctor] because if she ends up getting a medical bill or something like that, then it’s going to fall on the younger folks, right?” Mendoza said.
The city has identified racism as a key factor in the life expectancy gap between people of color and white Chicagoans.
To close the gap, the city’s health department is working on its Healthy Chicago 2025 plan. Under the plan, the city is creating Healthy Chicago Equity Zones where officials will tailor strategies to the unique needs of each zone to provide better care for residents. The city has committed $30 million to the campaign.
The department is also putting $24 million toward launching a Community Health Response Corps to address social, economic and health impacts of the pandemic.
Luna said the fight against COVID-19 isn’t over, and the department is still working to educate Latino individuals about getting vaccinated and boosted against the virus.
Latino Chicagoans no longer lag behind the rest of the city when it comes to getting the first shot of the vaccines, but they fall short when it comes to second doses and boosters, Luna said. Experts have said it’s key people get fully vaccinated and boosted to be best protected against recent variants of COVID-19.
“We’re not forever claiming that we won the war,” Luna said. “Because we know there’s ground to cover. We need to push the needle in a way that our population understands the importance of completing a vaccination and falling under that definition of completely vaccinated, which means they would have the highest protection.”
On a smaller scale, groups like Southwest Collective host community bike rides and grocery pickups to promote active living and provide access to free, healthy food.
But Latino-majority areas need more resources, advocates said.
There are still communities that are food deserts, Sanchez said. In many parts of Chicago with larger Latino populations, the main grocery option for families is a corner store where people buy affordable, but unhealthy, foods and snacks, she said.
Those neighbors need more resources, Sanchez said.
“Why would a family of six buy something that’s healthy, or cold-pressed juice, or orange juice or carrot juice, when they can buy like an Arizona Ice Tea can for $1 as opposed to paying $5 for orange juice?” Sanchez said.
At Esperanza, Ayala said her care management team is committed to its outreach program to ensure patients are able to keep up with their appointments, know of resources that could assist in paying medical costs and continue to feel welcomed and comfortable in their centers.
“We don’t focus only on [patients’] chronic conditions. Of course they’re very important, as well, but I think it’s all the other little things,” Ayala said. “We’re here to serve our community, and we’re definitely going to be there for them, if that means … just calling them to check in to see how they’re doing and if there’s anything that they need.”
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