Participants from a cross-sectional study of adults, aged 30-75y from the San Juan, Puerto Rico metropolitan area, had poor socioeconomic and lifestyle factors as well as high prevalence of multiple chronic conditions, with differences by sex in several characteristics. Paradoxically, most adults had attained some college education or higher, yet reported low annual household income. Low income may have been observed because most participants were retired or stay-at-home, with an additional 15% unemployed. More than half of the sample received food assistance and most had government-assisted health insurance. Our observations agree with recent statistics from the island , and relate to the current economic crisis that has stalled employment and wages . The education and income disparity was notable for women, who had significantly higher education than men, yet tended to report lower household incomes despite reporting the same employment rate.
The most striking differences by sex were observed for anthropometric measures; more than twice the percent of women (76%) than men (33%) had abdominal obesity. Our results are comparable for men, but higher for women as observed in a probabilistic cross-sectional study from 2005 (51% for women, 37% for men) . We observed higher prevalence of abdominal obesity for men when using IDF-based criteria (55%), which use a lower waist circumference cutoff based on differential fat distribution of people with European and Sub-Saharan African heritages. Waist-to-hip ratio was similarly high for both sexes. Both anthropometric measures denote elevated accumulation of abdominal fat, which is a strong predictor of multiple chronic diseases particularly diabetes , and thus merits urgent attention in this population.
When obesity was classified based on self-reported weight and height, women also showed higher prevalence of overweight (26%) and obesity (27%) compared to men (15 and 8%, respectively). Self-reported medically-diagnosed presence of obesity tended to agree with these numbers. However, a study that used measurement-based BMI reported higher prevalence of overweight and obesity among both women (33% and 44%, respectively), and men aged 21–79 years (40% and 38%) . Self-reported 2014 BRFSS data showed similar results as the aforesaid study except for women with obesity, which was lower (30%) . This suggests that participants in our study may have underreported their weight. Notably, men in our study were more likely to be underweight or have normal weight, and the only condition that was reportedly higher in men than women was hepatitis, for which treatment could lead to weight loss .
The majority of participants self-rated their health as fair/poor, and we observed high prevalence of sedentary behaviors and tobacco use, and low vaccination for influenza. These observed frequencies are similar to those reported in BRFFS except for current smoking, which was higher in our study (11% vs. 18%) . From among all U.S. states and territories, Puerto Rico had the lowest percent of people reporting good/excellent health and of adults 65y or older receiving a flu shot, and the highest percent of adults reporting no leisure-time physical activity in the BRFSS . Additionally, nearly half of participants reported short or long sleep time and some sleeping difficulties, and the majority rated their diet as fair or poor, suggesting that lifestyle and health-related behaviors tend to be poor in this sample.
Psychosocial questionnaires suggest that adults in Puerto Rico have moderate perceived stress and social support, as well as emotional support for those with diabetes. Similar scores using the same scales have been reported for perceived stress among Puerto Rican middle-aged and older adults living in Boston, MA , and for social support for Puerto Rican adults in the U.S. . However, more than half of the sample presented with depressive symptomatology. Using the same scale, Puerto Rican men in Boston had a similar mean depression score as in our study, but women in Boston had higher mean score than women in our study (22 vs. 18); the results were significantly different by sex in the Boston study . Puerto Ricans in the U.S. were observed to have the highest percent of depressive symptomatology (38%; lower than observed in our study) among Hispanics/Latinos; these higher odds of having high depressive symptoms persisted after adjusting for demographic, lifestyle, and co-morbid conditions .
The self-reported prevalence of the assessed clinical diagnoses in our study were generally similar to those reported by BRFSS [6, 7]. Only 40% of individuals with diagnosed hypertension reported currently having it; medication use was high for these individuals and our data suggest that they tend to adhere to it. It is possible that their blood pressure has been regulated by medication and they perceive their hypertension to have resolved. The high prevalence of diagnosed diabetes in the island agrees with previous reports [7, 29, 30]. Puerto Rico has the highest percentage of people with diabetes among all U.S. states and territories . Notably, an additional 13.2% of adults in Puerto Rico have been estimated to have undiagnosed diabetes as detected by laboratory measurements , indicating that diabetes screening, prevention, and control must be prioritized in the island. Family history of hypertension and diabetes were frequently reported. We have previously shown that Puerto Rican adults carry risk alleles in higher frequency and protective alleles in lower frequency than non-Hispanic whites, as assessed from variants involved in major metabolic and disease-relevant pathways .
We identified several lifestyle behavioral contributors to multiple cardiometabolic conditions and multiple chronic diseases, including poor sleep, sedentary behaviors, and poor self-rated diet. However, no sociodemographic factors were significantly correlated. While the limited sample size, or reverse causality, may be a factor in the inability to detect significant social determinants, the results suggest that unhealthy lifestyle behaviors may play a larger role in shaping chronic conditions in this population. A study among women from San Juan, PR showed that physical activity was associated with lower odds of metabolic syndrome, but not social determinants such as marital status , and in a cross-sectional study of adults in San Juan, PR, lower educational status, no alcohol intake, and low physical activity were associated with metabolic syndrome, but these associations attenuated after controlling for biomarkers .
Despite the collapsing health care system in Puerto Rico that has left the island with low availability and quality of services [34, 35], 76% of adults still seek yearly checkups and 70% have a personal health care provider to manage their health . Our study shows that participants sought – and trusted – health information from a physician or health professional. This was also denoted by the generally high percentage of participants with a cardiometabolic condition that reported ever or currently following treatment recommendations given by their physician. While the recommendations were mostly followed for medication use, adherence to diet and physical activity advice was lower. Notably, ‘currently following’ but not ‘ever receiving’ medical advice for diet and physical activity was more likely noted among those reporting doing such healthy behaviors in the questionnaires (excellent self-rated diet or light/moderate physical activity), suggesting that delivering medical advice may not be sufficient for patients to adopt healthy behaviors and continued guidance, as well as other tangible or motivational support, may be needed. Bidirectional relationships may also be operating, as those with poorer healthy habits may be more likely to receive medical advice to improve behaviors . Still, these observations provide an important opportunity for primary and secondary prevention of chronic conditions through health care providers. Adapted lifestyle interventions that have proven more effective for diabetes prevention than medication have been successfully implemented among Latinos in the U.S. in both clinical and community settings [37, 38]. Other sources of health information included media, internet, and advice from family or friends; however trust in these sources was lower. Use and trust on the internet was particularly low in men, which agrees with previous reports [7, 39].
In general, the poor lifestyle behaviors and high prevalence of chronic disease persist for Puerto Ricans on the island as well as the U.S. mainland. However, direct comparisons between the groups show marked differences in some factors, such as higher health care coverage and educational attainment but lower income in the island . Previous studies have reported lower prevalence of diabetes, smoking, influenza vaccination , and incidence of cancer  in the island, as well as substantial variability in causes of death . Additionally, Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. but born on the island have been reported to have similar rates of mood and anxiety disorders but higher overall mortality rates than their U.S.-born counterparts . Importantly, the distinctive pattern of circular migration for Puerto Ricans needs to be taken into account as it may be related to social, economic, behavioral, and health-related dynamics . Our study showed that 28% of participants had lived on the mainland U.S. for at least one year and nearly 1 in 5 planned to move away permanently, mainly seeking better jobs, quality of life, and health services.
The cross-sectional design of this study serves to depict participants’ characteristics as of 2015, yet it limits inferences on causality. The convenience sampling in primary clinics from the San Juan metropolitan area reduces the generalizability of our results, and it is possible that those seeking primary care services were either more health-conscious or needed clinical care due to pre-existing conditions. However, health insurance coverage in Puerto Rico is high, thus most people had access to care in the recruitment clinics, and their diverse locations improved the sociodemographic representation of our sample . The prevalence of chronic conditions reported in our study were similar to those reported by BRFSS and previous studies, suggesting that we captured accurate occurrence of disease among adults. Using assessment instruments that were previously validated in this population also improved the accuracy of data. Nonetheless, generalizability of results should be considered cautiously.