Feature

Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States, but so far researchers don't know enough about their health habits, says University of Miami health psychologist Neil Schneiderman, PhD. The studies that have been done on the prevalence of disease among Latinos—and the effect of acculturation on their health—have mostly focused on Mexican-Americans.

To fill that research gap, the National Institutes of Health and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute are funding a six-year, $62 million study of 16,000 Latinos. Participants are being selected from four sites—Miami, San Diego, the Bronx and Chicago—to ensure that people from a variety of ethnicities, including Cuban-Americans, Central Americans, Mexican-Americans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, are all well represented.

Schneiderman is leading the team conducting research in Miami, which will mostly focus on Cuban-Americans.

"I think it represents a positive development for psychology that we are now involved in large, multicenter, epidemiological-type studies," he says. "It makes sense because these studies have so much in them that is important to the field of psychology."

The participants undergo an exhaustive battery of physiological and psychological tests, including electrocardiograms, overnight sleep monitoring, cognitive assessment and full dental exams. They also recall their eating habits and wear pedometers to record their physical activity over the course of a week.

Once collected, the massive database will give researchers an unparalleled view of health behavior among Latinos in the United States, as well as a snapshot of their physical and emotional well-being, says Schneiderman, adding that preliminary data will be available in 2010. In addition, the study will show how acculturation affects people's health behaviors, he says.

An advantage of the study is that it will not rely on convenience samples, says Schneiderman. Instead of finding participants through doctors' offices or advertisements, researchers are selecting participants at random from targeted census tracts.

"If we had gotten volunteers from this study by contacting community clinics and HMOs, we would not be learning about how many people in these communities do not have a personal physician, do not belong to an HMO and do not have adequate health care," Schneiderman says.