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Mexican immigrants' health declines as they assimilate to America

Mexican-Americans who are most integrated into the culture -- including those born in the United States, and not recent immigrants -- appear less healthy and more likely to require resources to manage their health conditions than more recent, less-integrated migrants, according to a new study from Rice University, Duke University and the University of Colorado Denver.

In particular, the research reveals that this pattern of declining health among immigrants who are in the U.S. the longest holds more strongly for men than women. Conversely, the research indicates that, among new arrivals, women report poorer health than men.

"Men who have recently migrated from Mexico tend to report better health than women," said Bridget Gorman, associate professor of sociology at Rice and lead author of the study, which was published online this week in the peer-reviewed Journal of Health and Social Behavior. "This could be in part because men are more likely than women to migrate to the U.S. in search of employment -- often in physically demanding jobs -- and at younger ages."

The study examines gender differences in Mexican immigrant health using data from the 1998-2007 National Health Interview Survey.

"The implications of our findings run counter to the popular belief that recent immigrant arrivals are taxing the U.S. health care system," said Jen'nan Read, associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke and co-author of the study.

While men tend to start out healthier than women, their health declines at a faster pace as they adapt to the U.S. culture.

"In particular, the risk of diabetes increases at a strong rate for Mexican-American men, even after we account for a variety of factors that might explain this relationship, such as smoking or income," Gorman said. "Yet, among women, diabetes status appears mostly unrelated to their acculturation level."

Gorman and her co-authors, Read and Patrick Krueger of the University of Colorado Denver, found that the major mechanism driving these patterns is access to and utilization of health care. Women are more likely to use the health care system because of their roles as family caretakers; they are more likely to be in contact with doctors and, therefore, more aware of their ailments, according to the authors.

In contrast, men, especially those who immigrated more recently, are much less likely to use the health care system and therefore may not know they are sick. Over time, male immigrants become increasingly likely to use the health care system, and thus the gap between men and women begins to close.

"From a policy perspective, this highlights the necessity of improving access to and utilization of medical-care services among men," Gorman said. "Not only would this help address an important unmet health need for many men, it would also permit health researchers to more accurately assess and forecast medical-care need and use among residents."


Contact: David Ruth
Rice University

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