Study: Language Isolation Affects Latino Health

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Older Latinos who live in neighborhoods where little English is spoken are at a higher risk of poor health and early death, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.

“If you are linguistically isolated, you’re very likely to be isolated socially, and we know social isolation contributes to mortality,” said Kerstin Emerson, a co-author of the study.

The study has implications for how language barriers and social cohesion in a community can affect health, particularly among elderly Latinos.

What Does the Study Say about Language Isolation?

Researchers at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health conducted the study to determine if neighborhoods that are linguistically isolated impact health.

The study analyzed data from a survey of over 1,100 Mexican Americans ages 65 and older in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. They were originally surveyed from 1993-1994 and followed up in 2004-2005.

Researchers found that as these Latinos aged, their health outcomes worsened.

The worse health outcomes were likely caused by language barriers.

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“Language barriers can be a significant deterrent to health. People who don’t speak English well are less likely to seek health care or receive health information. This can lead to delay of care and missed health screenings for chronic disease and cancers. Language isolation is also linked to poor mental health,” according to the study.

Researchers also made sure that the worse health outcomes weren’t due to other life factors.

“We controlled for individual level factors, like their smoking status and alcohol use, because these behavior issues contribute to all-cause mortality, and we also adjusted for community-level factors. Community poverty rates, for example, are highly correlated with all-cause mortality, but living in a linguistically isolated community still significantly predicts all-cause mortality,” said Donglan “Stacy” Zhang, a data analyst on the study.

They hope that by understanding how different communities are at risk, public health leaders can create more effective interventions and help improve health equity.

Helping Latinos Through Social Cohesion

We know that language barriers have isolated Latinos seeking healthcare amid the pandemic.

That’s why people are calling for more culturally competent, bilingual nurses to help Latino patients. It’s also why resources like Anhelo were made to help Spanish-speaking Latino seniors navigate Medicare.

How else can we help isolated Latinos?

Fostering social cohesion is one way to improve health outcomes among Latinos.

“Social cohesion represents the capacity of a society to ensure the long-term physical and psychological well-being of its members. A cohesive society is an inclusive one; a society without significant disparities in health, wealth and income, one that values individuals’ backgrounds, integrating those from different backgrounds in such a way that everyone can relate to one another,” according to a Salud America! research review.

Unfortunately, social cohesion is on the decline in the U.S., due to increasing poverty and inequities.

We can help rebuild it through different social interactions.

“Social interaction with others does affect health outcomes, as relationships can facilitate the sharing of resources, help increase opportunities, and improve livelihood,” according to a Salud America! research review.

How Can I Help Latinos and Foster Social Cohesion in My Community?

Increasing social cohesion is an important step in creating more equitable communities.

Our research at Salud America! has found that several methods work to create a more cohesive culture:

  1. Intergroup contact theory

Interpersonal contact with different groups can help positively change discriminatory beliefs and attitudes.

“One study found that more interpersonal contact with Latino immigrants predicted fewer calls for lower immigration rates, fewer calls for increased border security,” according to a Salud America! research review.

  1. Diverse neighbors social cohesion intergroup contact cohesive culture research review2Peer modeling

When positive behavior is modeled between different groups, like demonstrating tolerance, it can help remove negative beliefs.

“Peer modeling promotes positive intergroup attitudes via the knowledge that an in-group member has a close relationship with an out-group member,” according to a Salud America! research review.

  1. Implicit bias training

Training people to understand their implicit or unconscious biases can help rewire negative or discriminatory beliefs.

Download the free Salud America! Action Pack “Find Out If You Have Implicit Bias and What to Do Next.”

  1. Effective communication

When groups can fairly communicate without attacking one another’s views, it allows people to understand one another more clearly.

“Key elements include: setting ground rules and structures for speaking; listening to others; allowing equal participation; sharing core beliefs; exploring doubts and uncertainties; asking genuine questions of others; and avoiding inflammatory language,” according to a Salud America! research review.

  1. Social media for social change

Social media can be a powerful tool to bring people together and fight for a social cause.

“The #BlackLivesMatter movement began on Twitter in 2016 after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Amid the subsequent deaths of Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others at the hands of police, the movement has reached and engaged millions of people across America. The organization has chapters in more than 30 cities across the United States,” according to a Salud America! research review.

Want to make a difference in your community, but not sure where to start?

You can download a Salud America! Health Equity Report Card for your area!

Select your county name and you can easily see how your area stacks up in housing, transit, poverty, health care, food, and other health equity issues compared to your state and nation.

The Health Equity Report Card auto-generates local data with interactive maps and comparative gauges, which can help you visualize and explore health inequities. You can share this data with friends, neighbors, and local leaders to motivate community change.

Get your Health Equity Report Card!

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