Immigrants Go from Health to Worse

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, September 19, 1998 | Go to article overview

Immigrants Go from Health to Worse


Bower, Bruce, Science News


People from around the world flock to the United States expecting to find a better life. But to scientists' surprise, a growing body of evidence indicates that increasing familiarity with U.S. culture and society renders immigrants and their children far more susceptible to many mental and physical ailments, even if they attain financial success.

The latest study of this phenomenon, directed by epidemiologist William A. Vega of the University of Texas, San Antonio finds much higher rates of major depression, substance abuse, and other mental disorders in U.S.-born Mexican-Americans compared with both recent and long-standing Mexican-American immigrants. This pattern held regardless of education or income levels.

Vega's results, published in the September Archives of General Psychiatry, appear at the same time as the release of a national report on declining physical and mental health in children of immigrant families. A panel convened by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, both in Washington, D.C., reviewed previous studies and concluded that assimilation into a U.S. lifestyle may undermine the overall health of immigrant children much more than being poor does.

In contrast, studies of nonimmigrant U.S. residents usually link poverty to poor physical and mental health.

"The material on immigrant health shocked me when we first reviewed it," says panel member Arthur M. Kleinman, a psychiatrist and anthropologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "Vega's study is consistent with the panel's conclusion that immigrants' health deteriorates with assimilation to U.S. society," declining toward general U.S. norms, says Kleinman. Other studies have indicated that citizens of many countries, including Mexico, are healthier overall than U.S. citizens.

Vega's team interviewed 3,012 adults of Mexican origin, ages 18 to 59, living in Fresno County, Calif. Of that number, 1,810 people identified themselves as immigrants. Interviews were in English or Spanish. …

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