The Health Toll of Immigration

Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, May 19, 2013

Becoming an American can be bad for your health.

A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. And while their American-born children may have more money, they tend to live shorter lives than the parents.

The pattern goes against any notion that moving to America improves every aspect of life. It also demonstrates that at least in terms of health, worries about assimilation for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants are mistaken. In fact, it is happening all too quickly.

“There’s something about life in the United States that is not conducive to good health across generations,” said Robert A. Hummer, a social demographer at the University of Texas at Austin.

For Hispanics, now the nation’s largest immigrant group, the foreign-born live about three years longer than their American-born counterparts, several studies have found.

Why does life in the United States — despite its sophisticated health care system and high per capita wages—lead to worse health? New research is showing that the immigrant advantage wears off with the adoption of American behaviors—smoking, drinking, high-calorie diets and sedentary lifestyles.


As early as the 1970s, researchers found that immigrants lived several years longer than American-born whites even though they tended to have less education and lower income, factors usually associated with worse health. That gap has grown since 1980. Less clear, however, was what happened to immigrants and their American-born offspring after a lifetime in the United States.

Evidence is mounting that the second generation does worse. Elizabeth Arias, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics, has made exploratory estimates based on data from 2007 to 2009, which show that Hispanic immigrants live 2.9 years longer than American-born Hispanics. The finding, which has not yet been published, is similar to those in earlier studies.


Other research suggests that some of the difference has to do with variation among American-born Hispanics, most of whom still do better than the rest of the American population. Puerto Ricans born in the continental United States, for example, have some of the shortest life spans and even do worse than whites born in the United States, according to research by Professor Hummer, dragging down the numbers for American-born Hispanics. But Mexican immigrant men live about two years longer than Mexican-American men, according to the estimates by Ms. Arias.


And health habits in Mexico are starting to look a lot like those in the United States. Researchers are beginning to wonder how long better numbers for the foreign-born will last. Up to 40 percent of the diet of rural Mexicans now comes from packaged foods, according to Professor Valdez.

“We are seeing a huge shift away from traditional diets,” he said. “People are no longer growing what they are eating. They are increasingly going to the market, and that market is changing.”

Joseph B. McCormick, the regional dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health in Brownsville, said, “The U.S. culture has crept across the border.”

Perhaps more immediate is the declining state of Hispanic health in the United States. Nearly twice as many Hispanic adults as non-Hispanic white adults have diabetes that has been diagnosed, a rate that researchers now say may have a genetic component, particularly in those whose ancestry is Amerindian from Central and South America, Dr. McCormick said.

Hispanic adults are also 14 percent more likely to be obese, according to 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate is even higher for Hispanic children, who are 51 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white children.


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