The threat of deportation is a common concern among Latino people in the U.S., especially amid today’s contentious political climate and waves of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. and abroad. Such worries can obviously take a toll on a person’s mental health. But frequent worry about deportation may also have a negative effect on physical health—specifically by driving up several risk factors for cardiovascular disease, at least in women, according to a study published this year in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Investigators from UC San Francisco and the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health looked at data collected between 2012 and 2014 from more than 500 Latina women of Mexican origin living in the Salinas Valley, an agricultural area in California. All the women were part of Berkeley’s ongoing CHAMACOS (Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas) study of farmworkers and their family members.
The women were asked whether the risk of deportation—either of themselves or a friend or family member—caused them “not too much worry,” “a moderate amount of worry,” or “a lot of worry.” The researchers also measured the women’s body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, blood pressure, and pulse pressure (the difference between the top and bottom numbers of blood pressure). All are contributors to cardiovascular disease risk, though the scientific support for pulse pressure as a risk factor isn’t as strong as that for high blood pressure (hypertension).
Women who reported worrying “a lot” about deportation—about half of the respondents—were significantly more likely to have higher BMI, be overweight or obese, and have a larger waist circumference, as well as to have higher systolic blood pressure (the upper number) and pulse pressure. Even women who reported a moderate level of worry about deportation had significantly higher BMI and systolic blood pressure, compared with women who reported low levels of worry.
Although the study found no significant link between deportation worry and hypertension overall, the lead author, Jacqueline Torres, PhD, an assistant professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UC San Francisco, said in an interview that this may have been because the sample size wasn’t large enough.
Interestingly, the relation between worrying about deportation and cardiovascular health risk factors held even when the researchers controlled for socioeconomic status, the amount of time the women had lived in the U.S., and whether they were U.S.-born (and therefore would have been worried not about their own deportation risk but that of a family member or friend).
How might deportation fears directly influence cardiovascular risk? One possibility is by increasing stress, which causes levels of the hormones epinephrine and cortisol levels to become elevated. Both raise blood pressure; the latter may also have an adverse effect on the immune system and blood sugar. Many studies have linked excessive stress with negative changes in metabolism, sleep, and dietary choices, all of which play a role in cardiovascular health.
Additionally, the researchers suggested that women who are concerned about deportation may be less likely to go to the doctor because of fear that information discussed in the health care setting could be shared with immigration authorities, or fear that they will be stopped by law enforcement en route to the doctor’s office. Delays in health care could mean that elevated blood pressure and other chronic conditions go untreated, Torres said.