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A Tale of Two States

Residents of Hidalgo and other nearby counties live to be 80 years old, two years longer than the Texas average. Meanwhile, in parts of East Texas, residents live much shorter lives.

East Texas residents shop in a grocery store.

Along the state's impoverished border with Mexico occurs a phenomena researchers call "the Hispanic paradox." Despite conditions that should have the opposite effect — desperately low incomes, a widespread lack of health insurance and poor high school graduation rates — the predominantly Hispanic residents of Hidalgo County live to be 80 years old, two years longer than the United States or Texas average. Residents of other Texas border counties live similarly long lives, according to a preliminary county-by-county analysis by the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The explanation for this is far from obvious, especially when you consider some of the border region’s other superlatives: sky-high rates of obesity, diabetes and kidney disease.

Meanwhile, the residents of Anderson County in East Texas die at an average age of 73. Black males live to be just 65. The early deaths are the result of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers — afflictions directly linked to lifestyle choices, including poor diet and smoking. Indeed, life expectancy lags across most of East Texas, helping it live up to its grim medical moniker: “The Stroke Belt.” 

What produces such a disparity in the life expectancy rates of two areas of the same state?

Border counties: The hypotheses to explain the so-called Hispanic paradox are endless, from theories about cultural differences in the diet, faith and family values of first-generation South Texans to suggestions that natural selection is at play in immigration patterns.

"The Stroke Belt": The proof of Anderson County’s live-hard, die-young culture is in the bread pudding — and the all-you-can-eat fried catfish, the drive-through tobacco barns and the doughnut shops by the dozen that dot this small East Texas county of about 57,000 people.

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