Immigrants to Canada more likely to suffer heart problems: study
The Canadian Press
October 27, 2008
TORONTO The stressful process of settling down in a new country may be putting Canadian immigrants at risk for health problems down the road, according to a new study to be presented Monday at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress.
While many immigrants move to Canada with healthy hearts, the study revealed the longer they remain in the country, the worse their cardiovascular health becomes.
Surpassing risk levels of other people of the same ethnic backgrounds born in Canada, immigrants become more prone to heart disease – which can lead to premature death.
“Most times, when people move to a new country, especially coming to Canada, they're coming for an improvement in their life,” said Dr. Scott Lear, lead author of the study and kinesiologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
“(Yet) the 'healthy immigrant effect' that we know fades over time.”
Using ultrasound, the researchers measured atherosclerosis – or narrowing of the artery – in a group of 618 Chinese, European and South Asian Canadians, 460 of which were immigrants.
Focusing on the carotid artery, which carries blood to the head and neck and is commonly used to find a person's pulse, they found the longer the immigrant had lived in Canada, the greater the thickening of the arterial wall.
The finding came independent of other risk factors for atherosclerosis, a major contributor to heart disease and stroke, which are leading causes of death in the country.
“The speculation is that it might be the stress associated with coming to a new country, or the challenges faced by those individuals,” Lear said.
“Settling themselves down, finding a job, finding a place to live, establishing financial security and in that case, health can be secondary or even much lower down on the priority (list.)”
Immigrating from Scotland 40 years ago, Jim Brown, 74, said when he arrived in Canada he never felt any cause to see doctors. It came as a shock when he suffered a heart attack in 2000, and he learned one of his arteries was 90 per cent blocked.
“This could have started long before the heart attack,” he said, adding he doesn't really know what caused his ailing health.
But he does know establishing a new life in the late 1960s had its bumps.
“I had a few jobs before I settled. You stress yourself out wondering if you're going to get hired, until you're in and you're hired and they see what your potential is and you're able to keep your job,” he said.
“Because when you come across here you've got no reputation, they don't know who you are.”
Immigrants also tend to be less savvy when it comes to accessing health care, said Dr. Chi-Ming Chow, a Toronto cardiologist who treats many immigrant patients.
“They're older generations, their language is not as good, or they're still learning English as a working language,” said Chow, a spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
It means obstacles can lie in finding the right doctor, being able to express themselves and getting over the fear of being misunderstood, he said. Changes in physical activity and diet – such as a greater exposure to fast food – upon moving to Canada are other factors that might contribute to the deterioration of health, Chow said.
The study's findings highlight a need for health care providers to become more culturally sensitive when tending to patients, he said.
“This is a wake-up call for Canada,” he said. “We must translate and culturally adapt important health messages to our audience.”
Lear, whose study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, hopes his findings will encourage creating health strategies for new Canadians from the moment they arrive.
“We're a nation that is really aggressively promoting immigration to Canada and it means we should not just doing a medical screening, but we should be providing services once they come.”
Despite the findings, moving to Canada can still have some positive impact on health, Lear added, such as having a higher likelihood of quitting smoking.
“You tend to adopt the norms of the society you come to, and there are some benefits in that.”