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The Healthy Immigrant Paradox

In any country, rich or poor, researchers find that wealth and education are factors that predict longer, healthier lives. This is true across Asia, Europe, America, and the world. However there are two notable exceptions that have kept researchers scratching their heads for years.

Despite the fact that immigrants to a new country tend to have less wealth and education than their native-born counterparts, this immigrant population tends to live longer and be healthier. The difference is statistically significant and cannot be explained away by statistical error. Perhaps only healthy people with lots of will to live choose to leave their home land and make the difficult journey to a new country. Maybe when an immigrant becomes ill, they return to their home land for support.

The other exception is known as the Hispanic paradox and is specific to the United States. Non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. have a life expectancy 2.5 years less than people of Hispanic descent. The reason for this difference has eluded demographers for years. Now a team of researchers thinks they have stumbled upon the answer to both issues: smoking.

We’ve known for years that smoking is bad for our health and reduces our life span, but specific information has not been readily available on smoking habits. The health questionnaire that most doctors have their patients fill out only asks if the patient smokes or was a smoker in the past. The surveys usually do not ask patients to list how long and how much they have smoked at various stages in their lives.

In the International Journal of Epidemiology, researchers state

We found that smoking is the single best explanation of the Hispanic paradox and the general immigrant advantage, at least among adults. Our results show that in 2000 smoking explained more than 75 percent of the difference in life expectancy at age 50 between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white men and roughly 75 percent among women. It also accounted for more than 50 percent of the difference in life expectancy at age 50 between foreign- and native-born men and more than 70 percent of the difference among women.


The National Health Interview Survey which asks detailed questions about smoking habits has shown that not only are Hispanics less likely to smoke than non-Hispanic whites, but that Hispanic smokers are less likely to be heavy smokers. While the study has interesting implications for the effect of smoking on longevity, there are many other factors involved.

The bottom line is that the cost of treating smoking related illness puts a huge burden on an already strained health care system. There is no positive aspect to smoking. It doesn’t make you healthier. It doesn’t help the environment. However it is quite addictive and makes a handful of people very wealthy. There is little motivation to ban it out right. Ultimately, our health is in our own hands. When ever we make poor choices regarding our health, we need to remind ourselves of the time that it is costing us.

Smoking is one of those vices that affects others near us. Second hand smoke is more dangerous than previously thought. Children are often the unwilling victims of second hand smoke exposure. Spouses of smokers are a captive audience as well. To protect the rights of non-smokers, many cities are banning smoking in restaurants and public buildings. While smokers may feel that their rights are being overlooked, they must remember the adage, “Your rights end where mine begin.”

(Source: scientificamerican.com)

Filed under health smoking immigrant Hispanic environmental health

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