Spanish vocabulary may help solve health mystery called the Latin American Paradox

(ORDO NEWS) — At the beginning of December 2021, I visited a physical therapist for a shoulder injury. During one of my visits, the therapist alternated between me and another patient in the next bed who had a knee replacement.

While the therapist worked on the other patient’s leg, stretching it and bending the knee, I overheard their conversation.

The patient was in pain, impatient to complete the difficult part of the therapy. The therapist encouraged him to keep working.

At some point, the patient expressed a desire to quit his job. The therapist replied, “Te queda una semanita más.” It translates as “You have a short week left.” The patient agreed to continue.

By adding the suffix “ita” to the word “semana”, that is, a week, the therapist suggested that the patient look at the remaining time of therapy in such a way that it sounded shorter, although the week was still full.

This ability to downplay or exaggerate a situation simply by adding a suffix is ​​one feature of the Spanish language that may contribute to the astonishing health resilience that researchers have documented in Hispanic populations in the US and called the “Hispanic paradox.”

As a Hispanic Quantitative Psychologist, I have been involved in stress and cardiovascular health research at the University of Miami since 1988. Most recently, I joined the Hispanic/Latino Health Study as a researcher.

This observational study of more than 16,000 adults documents the health status of Hispanics of diverse backgrounds in four U.S. urban communities.

Unraveling the Latin American Paradox

About 30 years ago, researchers reported that Hispanics in the US live longer and have lower rates of cardiovascular disease than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

This is despite the high prevalence of heart disease risk factors such as obesity and diabetes, as well as the stress caused by discrimination and low wages.

696,962 people died from heart disease in the US last year. The causes of the disease lie in the interaction of genetics and environmental factors such as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and a diet high in fat. This behavior contributes to the development of heart disease and stroke.

Stress also contributes to the development of heart disease.

It is also important how people react to this stress. So the extent to which our language contributes to how we process our emotions in response to stress can make a big difference in heart disease.

For this reason, Spanish can be an advantage. Having lived my life in two languages, I believe that this is true.

This apparent paradox between Hispanics’ increased health risk and lower overall rates of heart disease has been called the “Hispanic Paradox”. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hispanics lived an average of three years longer than their white peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reason for this persistence has been a subject of research interest for decades. They offered explanations ranging from statistical error to bean consumption to cultural values ​​such as “familism” – the notion that in Hispanic culture the family is more important than the individual.

Family ties alone cannot explain the Hispanic paradox

I was intrigued by this phenomenon when I joined the Hispanic Community Health Study in 2008. My first attempt at an explanation for the Hispanic paradox led me to investigate whether the family unit might provide some protection against early life stress.

In this work, I estimated the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences among Hispanics in the United States. If the family is a source of resilience, I would expect to find a low level of experience with abuse, neglect, or family dysfunction.

But to my surprise, the prevalence of these adverse events was quite high in these populations. In fact, 77 percent of the target group reported experiencing at least one adverse childhood event, and about 29 percent four or more before age 18.

This led me to believe that the source of the resilience seen in The Latin American Paradox does not necessarily come from the family’s safety net.

Exploring how culture can contribute

I then turned my attention to other cultural resources, such as social support and optimism, factors that can mitigate the effects of stress.

Is Hispanic culture more optimistic than American? An optimistic outlook can help people see stress as a temporary thing that can be dealt with. Optimism can help a person feel they can handle stress.

I came across an article about the positivity of human language. The researchers developed a “happiness index” that they used to measure the number of positive words in various sources in different languages. For example, they analyzed books, newspapers, music lyrics, and tweets.

The figure in the article shows the distribution of the happiness index by source and language. The result was amazing. The sources with the highest happiness index scores were in Spanish!

Once I identified Spanish as the subject of study, all the details fell into place. I relied on linguistic analysis to explore the role of language in emotion. Modern emotion theory describes that people need language in order for their brains to construct emotions.

Research shows that emotions affect how blood pressure and heart rate respond to and recover from stress. And our reactions and recovery from stress play a central role in the development of heart disease.

In other words, the rich and positive emotional lexicon of Spanish can not only influence culture over time, but also influence our emotional response to stress.

Contribution of verbs

However, not only positive words can improve the health of the cardiovascular system in the Hispanic population. There are other features of language that contribute to emotional expression.

Take, for example, two forms of the verb “to be”. In English we just say “to eat”. But in Spanish we can be in a certain way temporarily – “estar” – or more permanently – “ser”. This is very handy when dealing with negative situations.

In English, I can be overweight. In Spanish, I can be permanently overweight, which translates to “ser gorda”, or I can be temporarily overweight, or “estar gorda”. The latter option is transitional and allows for the possibility of change, which in itself can stimulate motivation for change.

Spanish is one of the Romance languages ​​that uses the subjunctive mood of verbs. The subjunctive mood expresses hypothetical situations, desires and possibilities.

For example, consider the “magic realism” of Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His use of the subjunctive contributes to the possibility of alternate realities.

The ability of the Spanish language to understate and exaggerate with the simple addition of a suffix also increases the range of emotion and perception. This is how the therapist in the example helped his patient through a difficult phase of therapy.

While English is the language of science—precise and concise—I think the flamboyance of Spanish encourages a culture that supports emotional self-expression.


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