Is being American unhealthy for Mexicans?

RICE / DUKE (US) — Mexican-Americans who have assimilated into the U.S. culture are less healthy than those who have recently migrated from Mexico, a new study suggests.

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, among new arrivals, women report poorer health than men.

Reported in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the study examines gender differences in Mexican immigrant health using data from the 1998-2007 National Health Interview Survey.

“Men who have recently migrated from Mexico tend to report better health than women,” says Bridget Gorman, associate professor of sociology at Rice University and lead author of the study. “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 implications of our findings run counter to the popular belief that recent immigrant arrivals are taxing the U.S. health care system,” says study coauthor Jen’nan Read, associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University.

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 says. “Yet, among women, diabetes status appears mostly unrelated to their acculturation level.”

The researchers 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 says. “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.”

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