Who do you think is more likely to live longer?
1. An American whose family has been in the United States for a couple or several generations, has at least a college degree, worked in an office equipped with every modern amenity and retired in time to have plenty of years to complete every item on his bucket list.
2. Or, an American who emigrated from a village lacking running water or electricity, never went to school or to learn how to read and write, and worked days and at times nights sewing clothes that ended up in department stores until she was into her into last decade?
A new study (pdf) undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania’s Population Studies Center has found that not only has longevity risen in New York City over the past 20 years, but that an influx of immigrants is largely to account for this.
In 2010, life expectancy in New York City for women was 83 and 78 for men. Researchers attribute the change in longevity among New Yorkers to a “sharp decline” in deaths from homicides and AIDS and also “in a surprising twist, an increase in the numbers of immigrants.”
The increase in life expectancy among residents of New York City is notable as, until the 1990s, longevity rates for residents were lower than in the country as a whole. Since 1990, longevity has risen by 6.3 years for women and 10.5 years for men to the point that, in the early 2000s, life expectancy for New Yorkers was the same as the average for Americans. By 2010, longevity for New Yorkers has become 1.9 years longer than that for the average American.
A Drop in Deaths from AIDS and Homicides
From analyzing federal health and mortality data, researchers discovered that fewer deaths from AIDS and homicides led to about 33 percent of the improvement in longevity and a drop in drug- and alcohol-related deaths to about 15 percent. 5 percent of the improvement came from a decline in smoking-related deaths.
10 percent of the improvement came from the growing immigrant population. New York has long been a city of immigrants but the number of those who were born in another country and now make the city their own has risen by almost ten percent from 1990 (when 29 percent of New Yorkers were foreign born) to 2010 (when 38 percent were). As the study notes, only 26 percent of New York City’s population in 2008-10 consisted of native-born, non-Hispanic whites; in the U.S. population as a whole, that figure is 62.2 percent.
For each of the 16 causes of death the researchers analyzed, foreign-both New Yorkers had lower mortality rates, including for AIDS and deaths linked to alcohol or drugs. Immigrants’ death rates from homicide and lung cancer are nearly 50 percent lower.
The “Immigrant Advantage”
Since the 1970s, researchers have noted that, “although immigrants tended to have less education and lower income, factors often associated with poor health,” they live notably longer than native-born Americans. But this “immigrant advantage” disappears over generations.
In her book “The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America About Health, Happiness and Hope,” which was published earlier this year, journalist Claudia Kolker writes that certain customs may play a part in helping immigrants live longer. Such practices including living in inter-generational households, pooling money with friends instead of relying on banks and, in places like The Little Village barrio in Chicago, an “old-fashioned street culture” in which people often hang out on stoops and walk to stores.
Kolker’s findings are anecdotal and call for further study but are intriguing. All of my grandparents were born in rural southern China and emigrated to California in the early 20th century. My father’s mother was 103 when she died and my mother’s father, in his late 90s. Both were physically active and maintained their cognitive functioning until just a few years before they died.
Both stuck to a primarily Chinese diet and were not in the habit of overindulging or eating to excess, or feeling that they needed to. For years, my grandmother made daily walks to Chinatown to shop and to see her friends; my grandfather played tennis and rode his bike well into his 80s (he probably would have done so longer but he was hit by a car in Golden Gate Park while in his 80s). My grandmother had no formal schooling; my grandfather had a civil engineering degree from U.C. Berkeley.
One small thing I remember: they both routinely said American desserts were “too sweet” and preferred the bland cakes from Chinatown bakeries or, even more, the airy sponge cake my mother made. As a child, I wanted none of either, preferring any number of cavity-inducing desserts. Funny but, as an adult, I prefer not to eat things that are too sweet: maybe, without knowing it, I’m trying to follow my grandparents’ ways. It would be something if I might endure as long they did.
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