Western Diet, Lifestyle May Be The Reason Cancer Is The Leading Cause Of Death For Hispanics

Western diet
Signs for Taco Bell, Grinder, McDonalds, Panda Express fast-food restaurant line the streets in the Figueroa Corridor area of South Los Angeles on July 24, 2008, Los Angeles, California. David McNew/Getty Images

A new study published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians found cancer is still the leading cause of death among Hispanics. But the data is much more nuanced than that.

First, the results of the study: After analyzing incidence and mortality data from national registries, the American Cancer Society (ACS) anticipates 125,900 new cancer cases and 37,800 cancer deaths among Hispanics and Latinos living in the United States in 2015. Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death among Hispanic men, while breast cancer is the leading cause of death among women — after lung and breast cancer, colorectal and prostate cancer are the most prevalent types of cancer.

These rates, however, significantly vary between Hispanic subpopulations. The ACS found that death rates among Puerto Ricans and Cubans are similar to death rates among non-Hispanic whites (NHWs). For example, the total cancer death rate for Puerto Rican men is 12 percent lower than the rate for NHW men, but is an estimated 20 percent higher rate than the rate for Mexican men. Similarly, Mexicans have the lowest death rates for the four prevalent types of cancer, yet they have the highest rates for infection-related cancers.

In addition to subpopulations, age also factors into cancer incidence: For young Hispanics aged 25 and younger, cancer death rates are comparable to rates for NHWs, though rates among those aged 15 to 19 are slightly higher. The ACS said that the risk factors for these subpopulations were low education and socioeconomic levels, smoking, alcohol, obesity, and infectious agents, like hepatitis B and human papillomavirus.

While there’s no doubt this disease is a concern, the overall cancer death rates are actually 30 percent lower in Hispanics today — equal to the rate among NHWs — than they were in 1995. In fact, each year since 1995 (1996 for women), this rate has been dropping by 2.4 percent among Hispanic and Latino men and 0.5 percent among women. What’s more is that the ACS found cancer burdens second-generation Hispanics more than it does first-generation Hispanics.

“The growth in the population of U.S. residents of Hispanic origin is now driven primarily by births, not immigration, which will probably change the future cancer risk profile of this group,” lead study author Rebecca L. Siegel, director of surveillance information for the ACS, said in a press release. “The second generation, born and raised in the U.S. and more intertwined in our lifestyle, including our diet, has higher cancer rates than first-generation immigrants, so we may see a higher cancer burden in this group in the future.”

Regardless of how high or low that burden turns out to be, this study suggests that the still-high cancer rate is driven by Western lifestyle patterns. Yet, as the ACS mentioned, it's difficult to accurately assess the risk profile for Hispanics because the term itself aggregates data. Using a single term to define several subpopluations just masks the distinct differences between them.

Hispanics face greater cultural and language differences in the U.S., too, decreasing the likelihood they'll get screened for prevalent cancers. The ACS reported the majority of Hispanics struggle with barriers, like a lack of health insurance.

"Efforts to further progress in cancer control must consider the dramatic differences in cancer risk within this heterogeneous population," the researchers concluded. "Effective strategies for decreasing cancer rates among Hispanics include the use of culturally appropriate lay health advisors and patient navigators; targeted, community-based intervention programs to increase screening and vaccination rates, and encourage healthy life-style behaviors; and further funding for subgroup- and site-specific research."

Source: Siegel RL, et al. Cancer Statistics for Hispanics/Latinos, 2015. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2015.

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