The longer immigrants stay in America, the less healthy they become, according to a recently published study in Economics and Human Biology by McCourt School of Public Policy Adriana Kugler and a colleague from Dalhousie university.
“This is counter-intuitive because we usually think of assimilation as a really good thing,” says Kugler. “We want immigrants to become more and more like Americans the longer they stay in the United States. This makes sense when you’re talking about education and income, but it’s not true about health.”
Kugler and Mevlude Akbulut-Yuksel used a nationally representative data set called the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which follows mothers from 1979 to 2004 and their children from 1994 to 2004.
The scholars investigated the extent of inter-generational correlations in health separately for mothers and children born in America as well as for immigrant mothers and children.
They found that weight, asthma and mental health issues such as depression were inherited in both groups, but the longer the immigrant children stayed in the United States, the more they resembled American-born children in terms of their high rates of obesity.
“This was fascinating because it allowed us to see how persistent the health traits of the parents, in particular the mother, can be in their children,” Kugler says. “However, it is also worrying because we found that as immigrants stay for more generations in the U.S. they may resemble native children more and also mirror their bad health.”
She says immigrants tend to initially suffer less from asthma and obesity when they first come to America.
“But as they stay longer for more generations in the United States,” Kugler explains, “they look more and more like U.S.-born kids and that’s a bad thing in this case.”
Though the study didn’t investigate why this takes place, the Georgetown professor says it likely has to do with lifestyle changes.
MOVING TO AMERICA
Kugler knows this from personal experience. Originally from Colombia, she notes that two years after her son was born in Barcelona, she and her family moved to Houston, Texas, which at that time was known as America’s “fattest city.”
Accustomed to a Mediterranean diet that included lots of fish and vegetables, she and her husband soon noticed that their eating habits were beginning to change.
“We started eating a lot more meat and processed foods.” she says. “After we realized what was happening, we started cooking more at home again and getting more exercise.”
She notes that children who come from other countries may initially be underweight and suffer from malnutrition and need to catch up to their peers.
“Our study implies that America continues to need policy interventions to help immigrant families stay healthy and stick to their healthy habits of cooking at home,” she explains. “Immigrant families tend to have fewer resources, so they don’t go out to dinner, which in this case keeps them more healthy.”
Once children “catch up” to their peers, following the typical American diet is a bad idea health-wise, she says.
“This is more relevant now with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because we know that otherwise immigrant families and children are often not able to get access to preventative care,” Kugler notes. “With the introduction of the ACA some of these issues can be avoided much more readily than they used to. This study is another indication that these families need such care more than ever.”