Speaking Spanish could help your heart

By Deserae E. del Campo

Speaking Spanish could help your heart

By Deserae E. del Campo
A recent review paper examines how Spanish could help respond to stress and explain the health phenomenon known as the “Hispanic Paradox.”

Speakers of Spanish, one of the romance languages, may have an edge on handling stress and protecting their hearts from cardiovascular disease, according to a recent review paper by University of Miami professor of psychology Maria Magdalena Llabre.

In her paper, “Insight Into the Hispanic Paradox: The Language Hypothesis,” published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Llabre analyzes how features of the Spanish language may promote positive emotional expression, increase emotional concepts, and protect against stress-related illnesses. She discusses how, compared to English, Spanish uses a wider range of positive words to express different emotions and assessments in certain situations, which can improve psychological health and well-being in the long term.

For example, the verb “to be” has two forms in Spanish: the permanent “ser” and momentary “estar.” Using the verb in “I am sad,” Spanish speakers can say “Yo soy triste” or “Yo estoy triste.” The slight difference in verb choice can not only affect the emotion but change the situation for the speaker. To share more about the Hispanic Paradox and speaking Spanish, Llabre discusses her paper with A&S News.

Can you define the Hispanic Paradox and what prompted you to investigate its tie to language?

The Hispanic Paradox is the observation that despite presenting high rates of risk for cardiovascular disease, Hispanics in the U.S. present lower rates of cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality when compared to non-Hispanics.

I became interested in the Hispanic Paradox when I started to work on the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos with more than 16,000 Hispanic participants in four sites in the U.S., including Miami. While working with UM’s Neil Schneiderman, (the James L. Knight Professor of Health Psychology), I noticed high rates of obesity and diabetes paired with lower-than-expected rates for heart disease. While trying to figure out what cultural factors may be at play, I read a study about the positivity in human language (Dodds et al., 2015). 

A table in their paper ranked sources, from different languages, in terms of the degree of "positive bias." I noticed the sources in the Spanish language were ranked at the top. It was that paper that sparked my interest.

What specifically were your findings and what was most interesting about the research?

What is most interesting to me, pertaining to the language hypothesis I proposed, is the link between language and emotion. It seems that language plays a critical role in emotion processing and emotional expression. Not only is language needed to express our emotions, but it is also important in how situations are appraised or interpreted and in how the emotions evoked by those situations are encoded in our brains.

Can the study be applied to understanding language and other health ailments such as diabetes, high cholesterol or even depression?

The Hispanic Paradox does not apply to diabetes and obesity, both risk factors for heart disease, but which are highly prevalent among the Hispanic population in the U.S. Factors such as diet, exercise, and adherence are key to controlling the high rates of obesity and diabetes. It is also the case that diabetes often goes undiagnosed in Hispanics. There are other factors, other than language, at play here.

In the case of depression, there definitely is room for language to play an important role. This is an important area to pursue.

You mention the need for more studies to expand ties between language and the Hispanic Paradox such as cultural anthropology and neuroimaging. Do you plan to work with other UM colleagues to expand on your study?

Along with colleagues and graduate students, I have conducted a pilot study (funded by the Provost Research Award) to start testing implications from the language hypothesis. We tested whether writing about a stressful/traumatic event in English versus Spanish made a difference in blood pressure recovery from reactivity to the stress.

We learned a lot about weakness in our protocol and got a signal despite having to terminate data collection because of COVID. I plan to continue to work in this area and hope to motivate others to join me.