The ‘healthy immigrant’ effect: For Mexicans, not so true

For the Booster Shots Blog

The robust good health of newly arrived Mexican immigrants is an article of faith among public health experts--as is the notion that the longer they are in the United States, the unhealthier they become. But the idea that emigrating to the United States is bad for a newcomer’s health--possibly because he departs from the healthful eating and exercise habits of his home country--has a major flaw in it, a new study says: These immigrants may not be so healthy to begin with.

They just don’t know it--yet.

Among newly arrived Mexican immigrants between the ages of 30 and 60, 3.8% have diabetes, researchers from the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica and USC found. But almost 59% of those diabetics have never been diagnosed with the metabolic disease and are unaware they have it. By the time they are in the United States for 15 or more years, only 29.5% of immigrants from Mexico who have diabetes remain unaware of their condition.

The longer they’re in the United States, in other words, the more likely it is that these immigrants’ heretofore undiagnosed conditions will be discovered and, hopefully, treated.


Roughly 18% of new Mexican immigrants between 30 and 60 have hypertension, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. But 1 in 3 were unaware of that fact. Over time, an increasing proportion of those immigrants who have high blood pressure will know it.

To gauge how new Mexican immigrants’ health compared with that of U.S.-born Mexican Americans and Americans of non-Mexican origin, the authors of the study culled data collected by the federal government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data between 1988 and 2008. Survey data from about 21,000 people between 30 and 60 were collected, including immigration status, self-reported health status and the results of a thorough physician examination.

The Rand report, published this week in the journal Health Affairs, suggests that even after accounting for their underreported health conditions Mexican immigrants do start out somewhat healthier than Mexicans who stay home, and that some of the observed erosion in their health after their arrival here is real. But it is far less dramatic than has widely been believed.

Upon arriving in this country, Mexican immigrants are less likely to have diabetes and high blood pressure (whether diagnosed or not) than U.S.-born Mexican Americans. But life in the U.S. does seem to take a toll on their health: By the time they are here 15 years or more, these immigrants will be more likely to have diabetes than their U.S.-born peers, and far more likely than Americans not of Mexican origin to have diabetes.

Still, coming to the United States is not as corrosive as might seem the case at first glance: As Mexican immigrants stayed in the United States longer, the study found, they grew more likely to have health insurance and more likely to be diagnosed--a first step toward treatment.