BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Becoming an American can be bad for your health.
A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. And while their U.S.-born children may have more money, they tend to live shorter lives than the parents.
The pattern goes against any notion that moving to America improves every aspect of life. It also demonstrates that at least in terms of health, worries about assimilation for the country's 11 million illegal immigrants are mistaken. In fact, it is happening all too quickly.
"There's something about life in the United States that is not conducive to good health across generations," said Robert A. Hummer, a social demographer at the University of Texas at Austin.
For Latinos, now the nation's largest immigrant group, the foreign-born live about three years longer than their American-born counterparts, several studies have found.
Why does life in the United States – despite its sophisticated health care system and high per capita wages – lead to worse health? New research is showing that the immigrant advantage wears off with the adoption of American behaviors – smoking, drinking, high-calorie diets and sedentary lifestyles.
Here in Brownsville, a border city studded with fast-food restaurants, immigrants say that happens slowly, almost imperceptibly. In America, foods like ham and bread that are not supposed to be sweet are. Children lose their taste for traditional Mexican foods like cactus and beans.
For the recently arrived, the quantity and accessibility of food speaks to the boundless promise of the United States. Esther Angeles remembers being amazed at the size of hamburgers when she first came to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago.
For others, supersize deals appealed to their frugality.
For Angeles, the excitement of big food eventually wore off, and the frantic pace of the modern American workplace took over. She found herself eating hamburgers more because they were convenient and she was busy in her 78-hour-a-week job as a housekeeper. What is more, she lost control over her daughter's diet because, as a single mother, she was rarely with her at mealtimes.
Robert O. Valdez, a University of New Mexico professor of family and community medicine and economics, said, "All the things we tell people to do from a clinical perspective today – a lot of fiber and less meat – were exactly the lifestyle habits that immigrants were normally keeping."
As early as the 1970s, researchers found immigrants lived several years longer than American-born whites even though they tended to have less education and lower income, factors usually associated with worse health. That gap has grown since 1980.
Less clear, however, was what happened to immigrants and their American-born offspring after a lifetime in the United States. Evidence is mounting that the second generation does worse. Elizabeth Arias, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics, has made exploratory estimates based on data from 2007 to 2009, which show that Latino immigrants live 2.9 years longer than U.S.-born Latinos.
Arias cautioned that subsequent generations – for example, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – may indeed improve as they rise in socioeconomic status.
Other research suggests that some of the difference has to do with variation among U.S.-born Latinos, most of whom still do better than the rest of the U.S. population. Puerto Ricans born in the continental United States, for example, have some of the shortest life spans and even do worse than whites born in the United States, according to research by Hummer.
But Mexican immigrant men live about two years longer than Mexican American men, according to Arias.
Why is a harder question to answer, researchers say. Some point to smoking.
Andrew Fenelon, a Brown University researcher, found in 2011 that half of the three-year life expectancy edge that Latino immigrants had over American-born Latinos was because they smoked less. The children of immigrants adopt health behaviors typical of Americans in their socioeconomic group. For second-generation Latinos, the group tends to be lower income, with higher rates of smoking and drinking.
Other researchers say culture contributes. Foreign-born Latinos are less likely than American-born Latinos to be raising children alone, and more likely to be part of large kinship networks that insulate them from harsh American economic realities that can lead to poor health.
"I'd love to have my wife at home taking care of the kids and making sure they eat right, but I can't afford to," said Camilo Garza, 34, a plumber and maintenance worker whose grandfather emigrated from Mexico. "It costs money to live in the land of the free. It means both parents have to work."
As a result, his family eats out almost every night.