U.S. Hispanics tend to defy the odds: They outlive non-Hispanic whites by three years on average, despite having lower income and education levels. In 2014, life expectancy at birth for the U.S. Hispanic population was 81.8 years, compared with 78.8 years for the U.S. non-Hispanic white population.1
For nearly three decades, demographers have probed why Hispanics’ socioeconomic disadvantages are not linked to shorter lives, as they are for other racial and ethnic groups. For example, for U.S. non-Hispanic blacks, life expectancy was just 75.2 years in 2014, more than six-years lower than that of U.S. Hispanics.2
Demographers call this the “Hispanic Health Paradox.”
Mounting evidence suggests these advantages are driven in large part by immigration dynamics: Hispanic immigrants to the United States tend to be healthier than average, while Hispanic immigrants who return to their countries tend to be older and less healthy. In addition, U.S. Hispanics show low rates of cigarette smoking.
Recent studies, published in the journal Demography, shed more light on these patterns.
Immigrants returning to Mexico report higher stress levels and more health limitations than Mexicans who remain in the United States, according to a new study.3 For this study, Christina J. Diaz of University of Arizona, Stephanie M. Koning of University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Ana P. Martinez-Donate of Drexel University compared data collected at the U.S. border the moment immigrants returned to Mexico (Migrante Study) with data on Mexican immigrants living in California in the California Health Interview Survey.
They found that less healthy immigrants with limited access to health care in the United States were more likely to voluntarily return to Mexico than other immigrants. They noted, however, that the timing of this study coincided with Mexico’s recent adoption of universal health insurance.
While immigrants who reported health limitations and frequent stress were more likely to return to Mexico, the researchers found no difference in levels of chronic conditions and self-reported health between those returning (either voluntarily or via deportation) and those staying.
They also hypothesize that immigrants in better physical health may actually be at higher risk of deportation partially because they are working and thus more visible. “The Hispanic health advantage in the United States would be even more pronounced in the absence of forcible removal,” they suggest.
Another recent study finds that Mexican and Dominican immigrants living in the United States are less likely to smoke than their nonimmigrant peers in their countries of origin or than U.S. non-Hispanic whites.4
Fernando Riosmena of University of Colorado at Boulder, Randall Kuhn of University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and Warren C. Jochem of University of Southampton United Kingdom used data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Interview Survey (NHANES) and World Health Surveys in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Their findings show:
- Mexican and Dominican immigrants, especially women, are less likely to initiate smoking and more likely to quit than their U.S. non-Hispanic white counterparts, suggesting immigrants may be protected from some deleterious health effects related to smoking.
- In the case of Mexicans in particular, immigrants appear to be self-selected for better health: Prior to migration, Mexican individuals who eventually leave for the United States tend to be taller and are less likely to smoke than their non-migrant peers. But recent Mexican immigrants are just as likely to be obese as their non-migrant peers.
- Examining Mexican immigrants, the researchers found evidence of swift weight gain after arrival, suggesting that Hispanic immigrants are probably not protected from potential health problems related to obesity, such as diabetes.
A third study finds that Mexican-born immigrants in the United States were healthier than their non-migrant peers and U.S. non-Hispanic whites on some biological measures (biomarkers) but not on others.5
Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez of UCLA, Alberto Palloni of University of Wisconsin-Madison, Fernando Riosmena of University of Colorado-Boulder, and Rebeca Wong of University of Texas Medical Branch used data from the Mexican National Health and Nutrition Survey and the U.S. NHANES.
They focused on the metabolic syndrome (a strong predictor of chronic disease and premature death) and its components—lipid levels (high triglycerides and low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol), high plasma glucose and blood pressure levels, obesity, and waist circumference. Among their findings:
- Levels of overall metabolic syndrome are similar among Mexican-born U.S. immigrants and non-Hispanic whites, but higher among urban Mexican non-migrants, providing evidence of immigrants’ health advantage.
- Compared with their non-migrant peers and U.S. non-Hispanic whites, Mexican-born immigrants are also much less likely to have high blood pressure, a difference that may drive the Hispanic Health Paradox.
- Diabetes levels are similar among Mexican-born migrants and urban Mexicans and lower among non-Hispanic whites, suggesting a disadvantage related to this condition.
Hispanic health is a “mixed bag,” the researchers write. Compared with people from other racial or ethnic groups, Mexican immigrants “exhibit a sizable advantage” in some areas (such as hypertension), while “exhibiting disadvantage” in other areas (such as glucose levels and obesity).