Immigrants arrive healthier than Canadians but get less healthy over time

New immigrants have a significantly better health profile than the general population as the screening process for immigrants to Canada tends to select candidates in good health, but their health advantage diminishes over time, according to  a team of researchers in Montreal.

The scientists are puzzled by this phenomenon and recommend that future research needs to incorporate both pre- and post-migration experiences in order to
better understand the healthy immigrant effect and its vanishing over time with increased length of residence in the receiving country.

A comprehensive review of 75 empirical studies of this issue found that while this so-called “healthy immigrant effect” is usually confirmed for adult immigrants, it is completely the opposite for children and older immigrants, as well as for refugees.

Another interesting finding is that the healthiest immigrants come from poor or culturally distant countries, perhaps owing to the greater scrutiny the candidates from those places are subject to.

The researchers also found that the foreign-born health advantage is robust for mortality but less so for morbidity, with immigrants in Canada exhibiting a survival advantage over their Canadian-born counterparts.

“Our analysis suggests that immigrant health policies should not be ‘one size fits all’ in type, and that they need to take account of immigrants’ ages and the indicators of the health problems they are vulnerable to”, co-authors Zoua Vang, Professor of Sociology at McGill University and Alain Gagnon, Director of the Demography Department at the University of Montreal, said.

Immigrant women have worse maternal health than Canadian-born women and mental health among immigrant mothers is especially poor, the scientists reported.

With 6.7 million immigrants already in Canada, and a projected increase of 334,000 per year until 2036 (according to Statistics Canada, 2014) the health of immigrants and their descendants could have important repercussions for Canadian health systems of the future, the researchers point out. 

“Policies must be targeted at specific life-course stages and, within each age group, at health outcomes for which immigrants are known to be at a disadvantage,” the authors recommended.