RAND study finds adolescent Asian immigrants improve their good health habits over time

December 05, 2006

The good health habits of adolescent Asian immigrants improve with each generation born in the United States, but health habits among adolescent Latino immigrants generally remain poor or become worse in succeeding generations, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

In a study of California adolescents, the nonprofit research organization found that behaviors designed to prevent health problems -- such as engaging in physical activity and using bicycle helmets, seat belts and sunscreen -- increased among the first two generations of Asians born in the United States. However, adoption of many of these same health habits remained relatively low among adolescent Latinos over generations, the study found.

While the nutritional habits of immigrant Latino teens were better than those of whites, those behaviors grew worse over time, according to the study appearing in the January edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

"The improvement we saw among Asian youth suggests public health messages are reaching this group," said Dr. Michele L. Allen, lead author of the study. "But the trends we see among Latinos, particularly in bicycle helmet use, sunscreen use and nutrition, are troubling and suggest new efforts are needed to ensure the future wellbeing of these teens."

In 2000, one in five children in the United States was an immigrant or born to immigrants, yet relatively little is know about the preventive health behaviors of this group, according to researchers. The RAND Health study is the first to compare an array of health habits across generations for adolescents from the nation's two largest immigrant groups.

Researchers examined information from the 2001 California Health Interview Survey that asked 5,801 adolescents ages 12 to 17 years about their preventive health habits, including use of bicycle helmets and car seat belts, along with physical activity levels, television viewing, nutrition habits and other items.

The study compared the preventive health behaviors of adolescent Asian and Latino immigrants across three generations to the health habits reported by white adolescents.

Asians generally either maintained or improved their preventive health behaviors across generations, while Latinos showed either poorer preventive behaviors than whites or a worsening of behaviors across generations.

The first generation of Latino teens reported eating more fruits and vegetables, and drinking less soda than white teens. But by the third generation, that trend reversed with Latino teens reporting poorer nutrition habits than their white peers.

Researchers say the nutritional trends are particularly troubling because they may contribute to high rates of obesity seen among the Latino community.

"We need more research to help us understand why successive generations appear to be eating a less healthy diet and how we can better support youth in adopting healthful behaviors," said Dr. Mark Schuster, director of the UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion and senior author of the report.

The study also found that while first-generation Asian teens reported lower use of bicycle helmets and seat belts and higher levels of television watching and video game playing than white peers, those differences disappeared over the first two generations born in the United States. Asian adolescents also either maintained or improved their better nutrition as compared with whites.

Allen said more research is needed to compare family, school and community influences on health behaviors to better understand why there are differences among racial and ethnic groups with high immigrant populations, even after considering differences in socioeconomic status.

"To help all adolescents from immigrant communities achieve healthy lifestyles, we need a better understanding of the social context that contributes to health behaviors so that we can appropriately tailor public health interventions" said Allen, an assistant professor of family medicine and investigator in the Program in Health Disparities Research at the University of Minnesota. She headed the study while she was associated with the UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion.
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Funding for the project was provided by the UCLA Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, the UCLA National Research Service Award training program, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The article is titled "Adolescent Participation in Preventive Health Behaviors, Physical Activity, and Nutrition: Differences Across Immigrant Generations for Asians and Latinos Compared With Whites." Other authors of the report are Dr. Marc N. Elliott and Katrin Hambarsoomian of RAND, along with Dr. Leo S. Morales and Dr. Allison L. Diamant of RAND and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

RAND Health is the nation's largest independent health policy research program, with a broad research portfolio that focuses on health care quality, costs and delivery, among other topics.

RAND Corporation

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