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Is Being Born in America Bad for Your Health?

Hispanics born in the U.S. have higher rates of smoking, obesity, and related diseases than Hispanic immigrants do

People from Latin America come to the U.S. seeking economic opportunity, but they shouldn't count on better health for their children.

New research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Hispanics born in the United States have poorer health by several measures than Hispanics born abroad who immigrate to the U.S. They are likelier to be obese and smoke cigarettes and to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. The 57 million Hispanics in the U.S. make up 18 percent of the population, the largest minority group in the country. 

Hispanic health2

Hispanic health trends in the U.S. present a bit of a puzzle for epidemiologists. As a demographic group, Hispanics are similar to American blacks in factors that normally affect health—education, income, and poverty—but their health outcomes more closely resemble those of whites. This is known as the Hispanic paradox: lower mortality despite lower social and economic status.

In 2013, non-Hispanic whites died at a rate of 747 per 100,000, while for Hispanics the rate was 567, according to the CDC. The difference can't be explained completely by older immigrants leaving the U.S., skewing death records. Researchers who examined infant mortality among Mexican immigrants found lower rates than whites.

Demographers offer a number of possible explanations for the paradox. Tight family and community networks might support better health, or people who choose to migrate might be in better shape overall. Hispanics also smoke less than whites. Whatever the explanation, it seems that the advantages may erode as families become assimilated and generations born in the United States adopt American lifestyles rover those of their parents. "People’s genes don’t change when they come to this country," CDC Director Tom Frieden said on a call with reporters. Behavior and lifestyle influence health.

"I think it has a lot to do with the types of food that are marketed toward folks," including sugary drinks and fatty food, says Ken Dominguez, the CDC epidemiologist who wrote the report.

Although their overall mortality rate is lower than whites', Hispanics have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, and they're likelier to die from liver disease. The CDC suggests public health professionals need to do more to encourage people to quit smoking and eat more nutritious diets.

That's especially important for Hispanics in the U.S. because their population is, on average, 15 years younger than the nation's white population. Interventions now "might have a broader impact on Hispanics in preventing chronic diseases that can manifest decades later," the report said.