Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article called “The Health Toll of Immigration” which looked into scientific research regarding the link between immigration to the USA and health changes. Their conclusion – in an ironic twist, moving to the United States might raise your general standard of living, but shorten your life expectancy.
According to the article, “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 culprit: the American high-calorie diet, combined with the allure of cheap, ever-available food that had previously been a decadent indulgence. The article points out that immigrants also often adopt other typically American behaviors: smoking, drinking, and sedentary lifestyles.
The Hispanic community which traditionally eats a rather healthy diet – lots of fibre, rice and beans, and plenty of vegetables – seem especially affected by this: a study found that “Hispanic immigrant men and women had, respectively, 4.3, and 3.0 years longer life expectancy than their US-born [Hispanic] counterparts.” Through a series of anecdotal interviews, the NY Time reporter traces back how this change could occur: In many immigrant families, eating fast food would first become a sign of success (“look at what we can afford now”), followed by the adoption of an on-the-go diet consisting mainly of fast food due to stressful, long-hour jobs. The following generation would be unsupervised and their eating habits left unchecked; communal home-cooked family dinners would become the exception.
These change in lifestyle might also affect the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, with “immigrants [having] significantly lower mortality from lung, colorectal, breast, prostate and esophageal cancer, cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis, diabetes, [and] respiratory diseases”. Other explanations for the findings point to higher rates of smoking and drinking among second-generation Hispanics compared to their parent generation. Additionally, changes in culture, for example the isolated nuclear family lifestyle of immigrants compared to the wider kinship network experienced in their home country, could contribute to less structured and healthy eating and lifestyle patterns.
The last paragraphs of the article are the most disheartening to me: apparently, Hispanics in the US – first or second-generation – are 14% more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white adults, with Hispanic children even being 51% more likely than their white classmates. Further, researchers are wondering how long the differential effects between first and second generation immigrants will continue to exist, since the North American way of eating is being adopted across the border as well, with up to 40% of the diets of rural Mexicans coming from packaged food. I’ll leave the last word to Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio:
“We have a time bomb that’s going to go off. Obesity rates are increasing. Diabetes is exploding. The cultural protection Hispanics had is being eroded.”