- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO - Immigrants to the United States on average live three years longer than people born here, research shows.

Growing evidence indicates that the life-span difference reflects immigrants’ innate vitality as well as their reluctance to embrace Americans’ drive-thru, drive-everywhere mentality. They also smoke less.

The life expectancy deficit is true for all races, but is most dramatic among blacks. Immigrant black men live nine years longer than black men born in the United States, according to an analysis by a researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The study reviewed millions of death and health records from 1986 to 1994, and found that the average U.S.-born black man could expect to reach 64, while a black man born overseas is likely to live beyond 73 if he immigrated. If the man never left the African country where he was born, he might well have died before his 50th birthday.

Perhaps most astonishing is that immigrants outlive the U.S.-born population even though they’re more likely to be poor and less likely to see a doctor, often a prescription for a shorter life. But researchers say factors such as smoking, diet and an active lifestyle make a major difference.

Findings on smoking were dramatic: 18 percent of immigrants smoked, compared with 26 percent of U.S.-born adults.

“People have a misconception that immigrants have poorer health, but when you look at the empirical data … you almost always find they do better than their U.S.-born counterparts,” says Gopal K. Singh, an NIH statistician.

Mr. Singh found that immigrants tend to live longer, regardless of race. The difference is greatest among blacks and Hispanics, with nearly a four-year gap between immigrants and U.S.-born citizens. Implicated to a lesser extent are whites and Asians/Pacific Islanders, the group with the longest life expectancy.

As they assimilate, however, many immigrants adopt bad health habits. Research by Mr. Singh and others suggest that, over time, immigrants behave like the U.S.-born population — more smoke, drink and gain weight.

“Assimilation often means assimilation into eating too much Cheez Whiz,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Immigrants face pressure to indulge their children’s desire for unhealthy American junk food.

“There is tension over giving their child what they want — chips, fries or soda — when they know that’s not the best thing to be eating,” says Dr. Elena Fuentes-Afflick, an associate professor at the University of California at San Francisco and pediatrician at the city’s main public hospital.

NIH researchers found that black immigrants are three times less likely to smoke than U.S.-born blacks and far less likely to be obese. They drink less and exercise more, according to other federal research.

It is not surprising, then, that national health statistics show that black immigrants are far less likely than U.S.-born blacks to die of everything from lung cancer to liver cirrhosis.

Data from the mid-1990s showed that 22 percent of adult immigrants were obese, compared with 28 percent of U.S.-born adults.

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