March 25, 2019
Portrait Of Family Standing Outside Home
Be Well

Dispelling a Myth About Immigrants' Health

by Keng Lam, MD  

Speaking ill of immigrants has become a popular activity in the current political environment. One of several myths you may hear is that immigrants are inherently sickly people and a burden to our health care system. This is unsupported by research.

First, it’s important to point out that immigrants are a self-selected group. In other words, people who come to the U.S. are actually healthier than those that stay behind—it takes a lot of effort to move from one country to another. Second, overall, immigrants actually live longer than non-immigrant Americans. In a study using data from the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System, researchers examined the extent to which U.S.- and foreign-born black, white, Asian, and Hispanic individuals differed in their health, life expectancy, and mortality patterns across the life course.

They found that male and female immigrants lived an average of 3.4 and 2.5 years longer respectively than U.S.-born individuals, though the numbers varied by ethnic group. Most immigrant groups also had lower risks of infant mortality and low birth weight. This is especially interesting because immigrants often end up in the lower socioeconomic stratum, a group that overall has poorer health. Population health scholars call this concept the “epidemiologic paradox” (also known as the Hispanic paradox).

Of course, there’s no guarantee that immigrating to the U.S. ensures a longer life. As a matter of fact, the longer immigrants stay in the U.S., the greater their risk for developing chronic diseases. This is called the acculturation hypothesis, and it is supported by research. It is the idea that over time, immigrants adopt unhealthy behaviors common among Americans, such as a higher alcohol intake, smoking, and poor eating habits.

Bottom line: Immigrants are not a health burden when they come to the U.S. Their life expectancy gets worse only after spending time living here. Instead of wasting time on false claims, we would do better to focus on using evidence-based policies (such as smoking cessation programs) to help keep immigrants from adopting unhealthy behaviors after they arrive.

Also see Pediatricians Speak Out on Immigration Order.