A Reversal of Health in Mexican Immigrants

Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. tend to have lower mortality rates than U.S.-born Latinos and non-Latino whites, a phenomenon known as the Hispanic paradox. But studies suggest that as these immigrants age, they lose their health advantage and end up with higher disability rates than U.S.-born populations.

A new study is the first to analyze disability rates among Hispanic immigrants, focusing on Mexicans, from working age through to older age (40 to 80 years) in order to better understand when and why that reversal of health occurs. It was co-authored by Mara Getz Sheftel, a sociology doctoral candidate at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and Professor Frank Heiland (Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY).

The study, published in Demographic Research, confirmed a higher prevalence of disability in Mexican immigrants later in life. Mexican immigrants, for example, start to show more disability than U.S-born Mexicans at approximately age 65 for men and 59 for women.

To investigate potential reasons for the reversal, the study looked at the association between disability and occupation, but used educational attainment as an indicator of occupation since job data was not available. The study found that having lower levels of education (suggesting work in high-risk, labor-intensive occupations) was associated with greater disability later in life.

“This population is experiencing the long-term consequences of more physically strenuous work environments,” said Sheftel. “We suspect that other factors related to work environment and economic status, including differential access to health care, play a role as well.” In fact, even Mexican immigrants with high school degrees and higher levels of education end up with a higher prevalence of disability at older ages, suggesting that in addition to occupational risk and socioeconomic status, other factors increase the risk.

Sheftel believes steps should be taken to improve working conditions, increase job safety, and ensure access to quality health care for Mexican and other immigrants. “We hope that more attention will be paid to the health and work experiences of this growing population,” she said.

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“Disability crossover: Is there a Hispanic immigrant health advantage that reverses from working to old age?”

Work By
Frank Heiland (Associate Professor, Marxe School of Public Affairs) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools
Baruch College The Graduate Center

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