Hispanics experience higher risk of heart disease, stroke while facing language barriers

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(NEW YORK) — When Jose Montijo sought treatment for shortness of breath, doctors realized he was experiencing heart failure.

“They told me your heart is working at 20% and you are a candidate for a heart attack,” the Puerto Rican dishwasher from New York recalled in Spanish.

Montijo is among the many Hispanic people in the United States impacted by cardiovascular disease. It is the leading cause of death among the population, according to a study published last year in the journal Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports. Roughly 43% of Hispanic women and 52% of Hispanic men in the U.S. live with the illness, according to the study.

Stroke is also one of the leading causes of death in the Hispanic community, according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, and language barriers may be a factor.

Dr. Claudia Serrano-Gomez, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Health, spoke about communication challenges in an interview with “Good Morning America.”

“They don’t speak the language,” she said about many Hispanic immigrants, noting the difficulties they experience in adjusting to an American lifestyle.

“They don’t know how to manage themselves out in the street,” she said. “They are not aware of how to change from their lifestyle in their countries to the lifestyle here.”

Experts say the numbers reflect other issues like immigration status, socioeconomic standing and lack of cultural nuance in health care.

Underscoring the importance of diversity in medicine, Cynthia Lebron, assistant professor and prevention scientist at the University of Miami, said doctors will not be able to give patients the best care if they don’t understand them.

“It’s not just language,” she said. “It’s cultural.”

Lebron also noted that good relationships between physicians and patients result in better health outcomes.

To help people spot the warning signs of a stroke, the American Stroke Association urges people to learn the acronym F.A.S.T., which stands for “face drooping,” “arm weakness,” “speech difficulty” and “time to call 911.” The ASA is also launching a new campaign spotlighting the Spanish acronym R.Á.P.I.D.O., so non-English speakers can better remember the signs too.

Dr. José Biller, an ASA volunteer expert and chair of Neurology at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine, said in a statement that “R.Á.P.I.D.O. is a tool that can help save lives.”

“The language barrier is among the most significant barriers to health care access and quality,” he continued. “Understanding which Spanish acronym resonated best with Spanish-speaking communities addresses this barrier while increasing stroke awareness and improving outcomes for all.”

Montijo, who has given up drinking coffee due to his heart condition, is now on the mend. But he isn’t planning to rest any time soon.

His daughter Mariel Miranda said she “thinks that it’s just part of the Latino culture to continuously work because retirement sometimes isn’t an option for us.”

ABC News’ Aisha Frazier contributed to this report.


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