How healthy are Mexican immigrants? New study raises questions

How healthy are Mexican immigrants? New study raises questions

El Paso : TX : USA | Dec 03, 2012 at 1:06 PM PST
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Mexican immigrants walk in line

Year after year, Mexico overwhelmingly leads the world in sending new immigrant arrivals to the United States. Because those immigrants are younger and are thought to be stronger than most native-born U.S. citizens, the U.S. medical community has perceived the health of Mexican immigrants to be generally better than the U.S. average. However, a new study indicates that more immigrants than we realized arrive in the U.S. from Mexico with a significant amount of undiagnosed disease.

Actually, about half of recent Mexican immigrants who have diabetes are unaware they have the disease. Further, about one-third of immigrants afflicted with high blood pressure did not know that they had that illness, according to findings published in the December edition of the journal Health Affairs.

For both diabetes and hypertension, a diagnosed disease was 47 percent lower among recent Mexican immigrants compared to native-born Americans. But undiagnosed disease explained one-third of this recent immigrant advantage for diabetes and one-fifth for high blood pressure.

But even after undiagnosed disease is taken into account, recent immigrants are still healthier than native-born residents. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. aren’t as healthy as we once thought.

The healthy immigrant effect

Past research established that Mexican immigrants arriving in the United States report being in better health than native-born Americans. Although that advantage disappears the longer they stay in the United States, the immigrant arrival report of health is well-established enough to deserve the label the “healthy immigrant effect.”

One explanation for the healthy immigrant effect goes like this: People who migrate to the United States usually come to seek employment. They’re more likely to be younger and also healthier than the overall population.

But immigrants often arrive from countries that have poor access to health services. So researchers wanted to examine how accurate the Mexican immigrants’ reports of good health actually were.

The RAND Study

The RAND study examined past study information for people aged 30 to 60, for two different time periods: 1988 to 1994 and 1999 to 2008. The survey polled a large group of people nationally. But, in addition to simply asking participants about their health, it also conducted through comprehensive physical exams and laboratory tests.

The RAND study confirmed past study results: Mexican immigrants in the United States for fewer than five years do report being in much better health on arrival than their native-born American counterparts. However, when the results of the clinical examinations were considered, the gap between the two groups narrowed.

Immigrants who had been in the United States four years or less were about twice as likely to have undiagnosed diabetes as compared to those who had been in the country for 15 years or more.

In total, 59 percent of recent Mexican immigrants who had diabetes were undiagnosed; a percentage that sailed by the halfway point. Similarly, 33 percent of those Mexican immigrants who had high blood pressure didn’t know they suffered the condition.

Some Implications of the Study Results

“A lack of disease awareness is clearly a serious problem among recent Mexican immigrants,” said Silvia Helena Barcellos, a RAND economist and co-author of the study.

“Our findings underscore the importance of screening recent immigrants for illnesses to avoid late diagnosis and any potential costs of delayed treatment.”

The study found the prevalence of diabetes was higher among Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants than among native-born Americans who were not of Mexican descent, indicating that Mexicans generally have a higher risk for diabetes.

Border Partners, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization working across the Mexico border, reports that hypertension and diabetes are epidemic in Mexico. Seventeen million Mexicans ages 20-69 are diagnosed with hypertension. Fourteen million adults have high cholesterol or triglycerides, and six million more have Diabetes 2. It stands to reason that immigrants from Mexico that arrive in the U.S. will not be exempt from those statistics.


Paying close attention to the health of immigrants is critically important. The health of the general population is affected by the health of any significant segment of that society. Maintaining good health standards in the U.S. means care for all members of the U.S. community. Ongoing health care reform must factor in the needs of immigrants.

Obesity, an underlying cause of disease, affects the U.S. general population becoming a growing concern. Healthy lifestyle choices directly affect body weight, which in turn directly influences these health concerns of high blood pressure and diabetes. Focused attention and awareness in the U.S. on healthy lifestyle options is a must—for the native-born as well as the immigrant population.

Education--a foundation to making healthy choices--and access to basic health care are both human rights that, unless adequately met, will diminish the humanity of a nation.


The RAND Corporation

Border Partners



Health Affairs

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Mexican immigrants
New study indicates that newly arrived immigrants from Mexico are not as healthy as we once thought.
Billie Greenwood is based in Davenport, Iowa, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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