Maintaining links with your cultural heritage is good for your health

People from ethnic minorities coming to live in the UK tend to have healthier lifestyles than those who were born here, but the longer they stay the more bad habits they pick up, according to new research, from the ESRC Research Centre on Micro-Social Change at the University of Essex.

The study by Professor Michaela Benzeval, Dr Alita Nandi and Dr Renee Luthra set out to understand the paradox of why immigrants’ life expectancy decreases as they become more immersed in their new country.

Dr Luthra explained: “We know from previous research that, even after taking into account factors such as wealth and geography, the foreign born generally have better life expectancy than the native born, however, this initial advantage disappears with increasing time in the receiving country.

“This is paradoxical because over time the economic conditions of immigrants generally improve and the stress, associated with moving to somewhere new, reduces so we would expect a positive, rather than negative trend in health. We wanted to find out why the reverse is true”

Researchers used data from Understanding Society, the largest longitudinal household panel study of its kind, led by a team of survey experts at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex.

They found that both men and women who maintain strong links to their ethnic origins are less likely to binge drink, and women are also less likely to smoke.

However, those who have weaker ties to others from their home country are more at risk of adopting unhealthy habits. They also found that women who report experiencing ethnic or racial discrimination are also more likely to smoke.

“Our findings suggest that ethnic maintenance is more protective for women than men, and is more strongly associated with binge drinking than smoking.

“Our research is important not just when we are looking at the health of immigrants, but also for the wider debate about immigrant integration and the potential benefits of people maintaining strong links with their cultural, racial and religious backgrounds,” added Dr Luthra.

Unravelling the ‘immigrant health paradox’: ethnic maintenance, discrimination, and health behaviours of the foreign born and their children in England is published in a special issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies ‘Ethnic Diversity in the UK: new opportunities and changing constraints’ featuring new research using data from Understanding Society


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