Give us your healthy, your wealthy, your wise
October 16, 2002
The whiter our skin and the deeper our roots in Canadian soil, the sicker we are in mind and body. The more recently we have arrived in Canada, the fitter we are and the more we practise values espoused by native-born Canadians.
Immigrants have it all over the native-born when it comes to both physical and mental health, reveal two recent Statistics Canada studies: Health Status and Health Behaviour Among Immigrants and Mental Health of Canada’s Immigrants. Immigrants suffer from fewer chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease, leading them to use the health system less. Immigrants are also less likely to suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and alcohol dependence. They have fewer crippling disabilities that prevent them from living full lives. And they live longer, as well as living healthier.
Immigrants are such good health specimens in part because they are such model Canadians. Immigrants are likelier to be married and likelier to complete their education. They are half as likely to smoke or drink heavily. They eat more fruits and vegetables. They are less likely to be obese or overweight.
But immigrants lose their virtues over time. As Statistics Canada explains it: “From the time that immigrants arrive in Canada, they undergo an acculturation process by which ideas and behaviours associated with their place of origin are replaced by Canadian ideas and behaviours. Lifestyle behaviours related to health may change over time as a result of this acculturation, coming to more closely resemble the behaviours of Canadians in general.”
In other words, something about the unwholesome aspects of the native-born Canadian lifestyle over time corrupts the more virtuous immigrants until, in the end, their health often becomes little or no better. The decline in well-being of immigrants occurs soon after they touch down in Canada, and generally progresses downhill from then on. For example, very recent immigrants – those in Canada for four years or less – are one-eighth as likely as native-born Canadians to be heavy drinkers, after adjusting for health-related factors such as age, education and household income. After they’ve been in Canada for 10 to 14 years, they are only one-third as likely to drink heavily. After about 25 years, they are about half as likely to be heavy drinkers and after 30 years, they are 70% as likely.
The decline in healthy lifestyles occurs with smoking, too. Immigrants are about one-third as likely to smoke when they first arrive and two-thirds as likely after being here for 30 or more years. And with their weight: New immigrants are half as likely to be overweight or obese, and as likely as native-born Canadians after 30 years.
But the identifiable lifestyle changes that immigrants adopt over the years – smoking, drinking, overeating – still do not explain most of the health superiority that new immigrants hold over native-born Canadians. After adjusting for these lifestyle factors, along with adjusting for other socio-demographic factors such as age, education and household income, Statscan found that recent immigrants are still the most superior of Canada’s physical specimens: They have half the cancer and diabetes rates, for example, and three-quarters the rate of high blood pressure. Something not yet identified, which Statscan hopes to unearth in future studies, accounts for the immigrants’ superiority.
Part of that mysterious unidentified factor may lie in immigrants’ preference for big-city life. Other Statscan studies have shown that the closer that people live to cities, the healthier they are. But not, Statscan says, because cities offer better medical care. Instead, the answer may lie in the empowering effect of cities – the can-do spirit they engender – and the well-established health benefits that come of having control over one’s life. Immigrants flock to cities because cities better enable them to fulfill their life’s quest – the reason they left their native homes for Canada in the first place.
The changing face of immigration also offers an explanation. Immigrants who have been here 30 years or more, and who fare little better than native-born Canadians, tend to be mostly European. “Immigrants reporting the fewest mental health problems were not from countries economically or culturally similar to Canada,” Statistics Canada reports. “Thus, the findings do not support the notion that recent immigrants who face a cultural adjustment process and non-European immigrants are more likely to suffer mental health problems. In fact, immigrants from Asia and Africa reported fewer problems than did European immigrants.”
These non-European immigrants are also the most empowered, Statscan found. Non-European immigrants “represent the most educated and wealthiest segment of their society.” Their empowerment upon coming to our shores, where they found opportunities to employ their skills and capital unavailable to them in their native lands, helps explain their health here.
The desire to succeed also helps to explain the divide between immigrants who have been in Canada a long time and those who haven’t. The immigrants who stay tend to be complacent. The immigrants with a strong drive to succeed often find Canada more limiting than empowering, and decide to leave, for places that will better utilize their talents. “The most highly skilled immigrants and their dependents are those most likely to emigrate, and it is precisely this group that is healthiest,” says Statscan.
In doing so, Statscan points to the real – not the imagined – problems that Canada has with immigrants: How to keep more of these people – so healthy, wealthy and wise – from leaving us for more hospitable shores.
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