Cubans rest on a bench at a public park in downtown Havana.
Cubans rest on a bench at a public park in downtown Havana. - 
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KAI RYSSDAL: The latest figures from the United Nations show Cubans have slightly longer life expectancy that Americans do. They do have free universal health care down there.

But a new study suggests it may be poverty that keeps Cubans going strong. From the Americas Desk at WLRN, Marketplace's Dan Grech reports.

DAN GRECH: The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and stopped sending discount food and fuel to Cuba. Over the next four years, Cubans ate a third less calories a day, and they were forced to walk or bike to work.

DR. MANUEL FRANCO: This was a unique opportunity, because we were able to look at what would happen if a whole population is able to reduce their caloric intake and increase their physical activity.

That's Dr. Manuel Franco, lead author of a new study in the American Journal of Epidemiology. He says following Cuba's economic crisis, a third-fewer people died of heart disease, and diabetes deaths were halved.

Franco says the study offers an important lesson to the U.S. on how to reduce healthcare costs.

FRANCO: Changes have to happen at the whole population level in order to reduce the burden of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

As Cuba's economy has recovered, death rates from related to obesity are creeping back up. I'm Dan Grech for Marketplace.