The immigrant health advantage lost on future generations

(Edmonton) The health advantages that immigrants enjoy over native Canadians are not passed along to their children, says a new University of Alberta study.

Katerina Maximova, professor with the School of Public Health, analyzed data from approximately 6,400 low-income children in an inner-city Montreal neighbourhood who were followed for more than five years. Within this group, 104 countries of origin were represented, which Maximova says was crucial to understanding how the Body Mass Index changes for immigrant children as they grow.

The study covered new-to-Canada immigrant children, second-generation immigrants—children born in Canada whose parents immigrated to Canada—and native-born Canadian children between the ages of nine and 12 years. These groups were further sorted by cultural background such as European, Asian and South American. All of the children came from similar depressed socio-economic backgrounds.

The data revealed striking indicators: The healthy weight advantage that new-to-Canada immigrant children enjoy is not evident in second-generation immigrants or native-born Canadian children. “The advantage is lost with each successive generation that lives in Canada,” says Maximova. “The data suggests that, the longer you live in Canada, the more likely it is that you’ll adopt an unhealthy lifestyle.”

As time goes on, she says, the BMI of immigrant youth begins to converge with the BMI of the unhealthier native-born Canadian youth. This suggests a need for more resources to be directed towards low-income communities where immigrants often settle in order to develop environments that support healthy choices.

“For instance, if immigrant children move into neighbourhoods where there are playgrounds for them to be active, few fast food outlets to tempt them to make less healthy choices, and people around who are eating healthily and exercising as part of their social environment, I think we will see a difference on their BMI,” says Maximova.

“New immigrants want to adopt Canadian ways when they arrive, particularly youth. Within this specific age group, the pressure to fit in to Canadian cultural norms is multiplied even further,” she adds.

As immigrants continue to represent the fastest growing demographic group in Canada, this research is timely and important for future planning and resource allocation, says Maximova. The next step in the research is to further test the data to see if BMI is truly tied to lifestyle and behaviours.

“We want to know more about how we can help immigrants preserve their health advantage and perhaps learn from them to promote and protect the health of all Canadians,” says Maximova.

Maximova’s study was recently published in the Annals of  Epidemiology.

Katerina Maximova profile: