Research News

Vanderbilt doctoral student conducts first-ever study of life expectancy among different Asian American ethnic groups

By Celeste Malone

Darwin Baluran

Many studies on health and health disparities lump people of Asian descent into one category, making it hard to identify inequities in areas such as life expectancy when studying these populations.

Darwin Baluran, a doctoral student in the Vanderbilt Department of Sociology, sought to investigate the intermixture of ethnicities included under the “Asian” racial category—one of the nation’s fastest-growing groups—and the health of these groups in the United States. As the first study to examine different Asian ethnic groups’ life expectancy by geographic region, the study challenges how researchers look at the Asian American population. 

“We do a disservice to marginalized communities by homogenizing them under these broad categories and erasing the issues that they face,” Baluran said. “This is very important to think about because by clumping groups together, some groups will lose representation in the data.” 

The study stems from a term paper Baluran wrote in Evelyn Patterson’s graduate seminar on Human Ecology and Population Studies. Patterson, associate professor of sociology and of law, encouraged and mentored Baluran as he continued the line of research and saw the inequities firsthand. The resulting paper was published on Oct. 1

Dr. Evelyn Patterson

in Demography.

Baluran found it difficult to access data on discrete Asian groups before 2000 because of how earlier U.S. census forms were set up to categorize race. Thus, Baluran focused on the most recent data. Even then he ran into difficulties. 

“Because it is not clear how people who identify as having more than one race or ethnicity are tabulated in the U.S. census data, we only used data for people who identified as having only one ethnicity, like Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese,” Baluran said.  

Through the data they were able to access, Baluran and Patterson found that people of Chinese descent had the longest life expectancy at birth among the six largest Asian groups: Chinese, Asian Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans and Japanese. People of Vietnamese descent had the shortest.  

Both scholars feel that it is essential to challenge how researchers and scholars study and analyze racial and ethnic groups, making sure they assess what categorizations are meaningful and how this meaning changes over time. 

“These findings add a nuanced account to our understanding of race, often using the term to try to capture people’s shared life experiences,” Baluran said. “Our findings, however, ask us to reconsider the meaningfulness of using a term like ‘Asian’ or ‘Asian American’ when describing the lived experiences and life outcomes of the people encapsulated under those labels.”