May 18, 2013
The Health Toll of Immigration
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
BROWNSVILLE, Tex. 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. . . .
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.
Here in Brownsville, a worn border city studded with fast-food restaurants, immigrants say that happens slowly, almost imperceptibly. In America, foods like ham and bread that are not supposed to be sweet are. And children lose their taste for traditional Mexican foods like cactus and beans. . . .
Robert O. Valdez, a professor of family and community medicine and economics at the University of New Mexico, said, "All the things we tell people to do from a clinical perspective today a lot of fiber and less meat were exactly the lifestyle habits that immigrants were normally keeping."
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.
"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."