Campus News

Gerontology researcher studies language barriers and health

Kerstin Emerson, clinical associate professor of gerontology at the Institute of Gerontology in the College of Public Health, was quoted as co-author on recent research that examines the role of language barriers in the health of older Mexican-Americans.

“Not many studies have looked at the link between language isolation and health outcomes for Hispanic older adults,” said Emerson.

Studies have shown that people who are not native English speakers are less likely to seek health care or look for health information. This means part of the population might miss health screenings, leading to higher cases of chronic disease, cancer or mental health issues.

“If you are linguistically isolated, you’re very likely to be isolated socially, and we know social isolation contributes to mortality,” said Emerson.

This seems to be the case in older Mexican American communities, and they are experiencing worse health.

“It’s not just that you’re not using the health care system; you’re very likely not to have a large social network outside of your neighborhood. The bigger your social networks are, the more likely you are to find out about services,” she said.

Her research shows that health care providers should reach out to these communities more and provide more culturally adaptive services that account for things like chronic disease screenings.

“We focus on the easy thing, which is translating a pamphlet [into Spanish], but we’re actually talking about entire neighborhoods that are socially isolated, so not just the one home or one person. Translating pamphlets isn’t going to cut it,” she said.

Emerson argues that there needs to be more long-term studies to support better public health outreach in these communities.

“It would mean targeting those communities with specific interventions that are linguistically and culturally appropriate,” she said. “So, let’s spend our money there and do it culturally, competently.”