Sunday, May 19, 2013
Keeping immigrants and all of us healthy is a social task
The Health Toll of Immigration, by Sabrina Tavernise in the May 19 New York Times, documents the decreased life expectancy and worse overall health that accompany immigration to the United States. Focusing on Mexican immigrants in the border city of Brownsville, Texas, but drawing on data about other ethnicities and even time periods, the article provides convincing data that descendants of people who immigrate from Mexico and other, poorer, countries, have, in general, worse health, greater rates of obesity and diabetes, and shorter life expectancies than their parents or those who stayed. The numbers are impressive: “A 2006 analysis by Gopal K. Singh, a researcher at the Department of Health and Human Services, and Robert A. Hiatt, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, found that immigrants had at least a 20% lower overall cancer mortality rate than their American-born counterparts. Mortality rates from heart disease were about 16% lower, for kidney disease 18% lower, and for liver cirrhosis 24% lower.” It seems to get worse for later generations; “Elizabeth Arias, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics, has made exploratory estimates based on data from 2007 to 2009, which show that Hispanic immigrants live 2.9 years longer than American-born Hispanics.”
Some, perhaps most, of this is related to the prosperity of the US, and the easy availability of cheap, high fat, high sugar, high calorie food. One woman, who came to the US at 26 and has since developed diabetes, says she was amazed at seeing hamburgers as big as dinner plates; “I thought this really is a country of opportunity! Look at the size of the food!” Grueling work hours, both parents working (when both are here) make time for preparation of healthful food scarce, and more cash in their pockets allows the purchase of tasty-but-bad-for-you fast food. In addition, there is evidence of increased smoking and drinking as immigrants move into the US underclass, a group particularly targeted by marketing efforts for these substances of abuse.
Traditional diets for most people, including Mexicans, are based on food that is grown or found wild (vegetables, cactus) or bought in bulk (rice and beans). These are high fiber and low in empty calories. Robert Valdez, from the Department of Family and Community Medicine and Economics at the University of New Mexico, is quoted as saying “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.” There is some evidence that there may be a genetic predisposition to diabetes in some Latinos, particularly Mexicans, as there is in American Indians; after all, Mexicans are largely a mestizo people with much Indian “blood”. Of course, these observations may be related; the natural diet of native peoples did not provide the environmental factors (high calories, obesity) needed to trigger clinical diabetes, and so the genes for this did not “die out” as readily as in other groups. The same model is seen in South America; the remote Xingu Indians of the Amazon now have extremely high rates of diabetes where it never existed before the introduction of “white” food (used to refer to the color of the food as well as of the people who introduced it).
The other big factor is physical activity. While many immigrants work in physically demanding jobs, the prevalence of physical activity is not as great as for those living on farms in Mexico. One man talks about losing 75 pounds motivated by the image on the wall of his grandfather, who is 93 and still rides his bicycle every day. Yet, 4 of the 6 siblings of the grandson are obese and have diabetes. Another immigrant talks about walking in her early years in the US and feeling so conspicuous (“a bean in rice”) that she was afraid people would think she was here illegally. This has also been described in African-Americans moving from the agricultural (and very poor) South to a more prosperous, but sedentary, life in the North, and in most families a generation or two removed from farms, whatever their ethnicity. Concepts of what is “enough” food, what is a “good” breakfast or dinner for our children, did not change as quickly as lifestyles did. Our culture does not require physical activity as part of daily life the way farming, including subsistence farming, did, but we fed our children the same number of calories as we did (if we were prosperous farmers) or would have liked to, or more, because it is more easily available. Indeed, these changes are not limited to the US; things are changing for the worse (in terms of health) in Mexico as well; citing the fact that up to 40% of the rural diet in Mexico comes from packaged foods, “Researchers are beginning to wonder how long better numbers for the foreign-born will last.”
Dr. Arias, cited above, observes that the health status of immigrant families “…may indeed improve as they rise in socioeconomic status, which in the United States is strongly correlated with better health.” Of course, there is no guarantee that longer time in this country will cause a rise in socioeconomic status; the last decade shows a persistent decrease in the socioeconomic status of most Americans, despite a “recovery” measured by Wall St. stock prices. The answer is not to regress to rural poverty, but it is to address these social determinants. It is to build towns that encourage walking and other physical activity. It should be to make fresh, healthful food widely available. It should involve education in schools about healthful eating, not undercut by junk food available in machines. It should limit advertising for poisons such as tobacco and alcohol. It should make clean air and water a priority, and ensure everyone has access to good health care.
It should be a no-brainer, but in the politics of the US today, it may not be. Charles Blow in his May 18, 2013 column “Resonance Resistant”, notes that “We all know that anything with ‘social’ in its name activates the conservative gag reflex.” This is crazy; we are social beings. We can do better, and we should.