Immigration at a young age may increase risk for later alcohol and drug problems

May 20, 2014, Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

Prior research has shown that Hispanic immigrants have lower rates of alcohol- and drug-related problems and disorders than their U.S.-born counterparts. Furthermore, Hispanic immigrants tend to have better health outcomes than U.S.-born Hispanics. However, a new study has found that immigration from Mexico to the U.S. before 14 years of age often results in risky alcohol- and drug-related behavior that mirrors U.S.-born Mexican Americans.

Results will be published in the July 2014 online-only issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.

"The tendency for foreign-born Hispanics – who we would expect to show poorer signs of health due to immigration and lifestyle disruptions such as not being able to locate familiar, healthy foods – to report more favorable health indicators than U.S.-born Hispanics has been known as the 'immigrant paradox,'" explained, Jennifer M. Reingle, assistant professor in the department of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at The University of Texas School of Public Health Dallas Regional Campus, part of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). "Researchers believe that this paradox is associated with the deterioration of cultural and Hispanic family values – which are protective from most risk behaviors – during assimilation into U.S. culture."

"These findings may reflect either changes in norms related to alcohol and drug use that occur with adaptation to the U.S. or a response to stresses associated with acculturation," added Sarah Zemore, senior scientist and associate director of the National Alcohol Research Center at the Alcohol Research Group. "I think the existing evidence more strongly supports the normative model than the stress model. For example, the normative model makes better sense of the fact that researchers repeatedly find stronger effects for nativity status and acculturation on alcohol and drug outcomes among women than men. For female , it's clear that norms surrounding alcohol and drugs are typically much more restrictive in their countries of origin compared to the U.S.; for male immigrants, the differences are more nuanced. Thus, different effects across genders are consistent with a normative perspective."

Reingle, who is also the corresponding author for the study, noted that the sampling method – which compared Mexican Americans who live in cities near the U.S./Mexico border with Mexican Americans who live in cities much farther away – makes the study especially unique and different from other research.

"There are very important contextual differences between the U.S./Mexico border and large cities nationwide in the U.S. that have a high concentration of Mexican Americans," she said. "The U.S./Mexico border population is characterized by a high concentration of poverty, low education levels, drug trafficking, and even some cartel-related violence. Alcohol is easily accessible across the border, as the legal drinking age in Mexico is 18 [years,] and the drinking age is not enforced as strictly as it is in the U.S."

Reingle and her colleagues examined two samples of Mexican American adults: 1,307 adults residing along the U.S.-Mexico border; and 1,288 non-border adults, residing in Los Angeles (n=609), Houston (n=513), New York (n=86), Philadelphia (n=59), and Miami (n=21). The latter group was interviewed as a part of the 2006 Hispanic Americans Baseline Alcohol Survey study. Statistical methods were used to examine how immigration age during adolescence is related to alcohol and drug use in adulthood.

"We found that U.S.-born Mexican Americans, compared to immigrants in general, were consistently at elevated risk for current alcohol use and had a greater drinking volume each week," said Reingle. "However, Mexican Americans who immigrated to the U.S. before age 12 were two to three times more likely than older immigrants, ages 25 and older, to use illicit drugs. We expected that immigration between the ages of 12 and 14 would be especially important based upon prior developmental research on adolescence and immigration. Early adolescence is a critical developmental time period, and individuals are fighting to form an individual identity. Further, young immigrants may have difficulty speaking English and may not 'fit in,' so they may develop a 'low social status' identity and have difficulty associating with a positive network of ."

"The pattern of results for age of immigration is certainly provocative and exciting," added Zemore. "I agree with Dr. Reingle's conclusion that early socialization processes might be particularly important in the development of substance use patterns. Hispanic immigrants who attend schools in the U.S., and who learn about and experiment with alcohol and drugs there, may be especially likely to embark on problematic trajectories that mirror those of many of their American-born peers. However, it is not completely clear from the current data that there is a threshold effect at early adolescence for both alcohol and drug outcomes. The data are certainly suggestive of such a threshold for drug use, but more complicated for the alcohol outcomes. At present I would say we need more data."

"Researchers have known for decades that the Hispanic culture is protective, even when a family or individual immigrates to the U.S.," said Reingle. "A Hispanic person, or a clinician working with Hispanics, should work to retain, or emphasize the retention of, Hispanic cultural norms within the family unit to minimize any risk factors that may result in substance use – speaking Spanish, maintain traditional eating habits, and parenting techniques are key. Also important is research focusing on the U.S./Mexico border, a large region that is difficult to study due to a large variety of populations, ranging from very poor immigrants living in colonias to faculty who work at universities. Our major contribution is that we were able to measure drug use and sub-clinical use, which may not meet the diagnostic criteria for abuse or dependence."

"This is important work because it helps us think about how to target messages to reduce the risk for substance use disorders among Latinos," said Zemore. "Further, I think the findings are exciting because they may be suggestive of general processes that also apply to other immigrant groups, as well as other health-related behaviors. That is, the team's findings may point to the possibility of sensitive periods for the acquisition of many behavior patterns, such as those related to smoking, eating, and exercise, among immigrant groups. I hope these findings inspire additional research on this possibility. A better understanding of cultural adaptation processes seems bound to improve the timing and content of interventions with immigrant populations, who often suffer worse health with increasing adaptation to the U.S."

Explore further: Hispanic stroke patients less likely to receive clot-busting drugs in

Related Stories

Hispanic stroke patients less likely to receive clot-busting drugs in

February 13, 2014
Hispanic stroke patients admitted to hospitals in the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were less likely than non-Hispanics in the same border states to receive clot-busting drugs and more likely ...

Immigration status impacts health, especially for the young

December 11, 2013
Age at immigration and citizenship status may have health implications for immigrants, finds a new study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Future generations could inherit drug and alcohol use

March 20, 2014
Parents who use alcohol, marijuana, and drugs have higher frequencies of children who pick up their habits, according to a study from Sam Houston State University.

Teen alcohol and illicit drug use and abuse examined in study

April 2, 2012
A survey of a nationally representative sample of U.S. teenagers suggests that most cases of alcohol and drug abuse have their initial onset at this important period of development, according to a report published in the ...

Parental disapproval contributes to racial, ethnic differences in prescription drug misuse by teens

May 12, 2014
Parents' attitudes toward substance use may help to explain observed racial/ethnic variations in prescription drug misuse among teens, reports a study in the May Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, the official ...

Recommended for you

Marijuana use may not aid patients in opioid addiction treatment

December 4, 2017
Many patients who are being treated for opioid addiction in a medication-assisted treatment clinic use marijuana to help manage their pain and mood symptoms.

For opiate addiction, study finds drug-assisted treatment is more effective than detox

November 23, 2017
Say you're a publicly insured Californian with an addiction to heroin, fentanyl or prescription narcotics, and you want to quit.

Study finds medical cannabis is effective at reducing opioid addiction

November 17, 2017
A new study conducted by researchers at The University of New Mexico, involving medical cannabis and prescription opioid use among chronic pain patients, found a distinct connection between having the legal ability to use ...

Insomnia linked to alcohol-use frequency among early adolescents, says new psychology study

November 8, 2017
Insomnia is linked to frequency of alcohol use among early adolescents, according to new Rutgers University–Camden research.

Large declines seen in teen substance abuse, delinquency

October 25, 2017
More than a decade of data indicates teens have become far less likely to abuse alcohol, nicotine and illicit drugs, and they also are less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors, such as fighting and stealing, according ...

Trying to get sober? NIH offers tool to help find good care

October 3, 2017
The phone calls come—from fellow scientists and desperate strangers—with a single question for the alcohol chief at the National Institutes of Health: Where can my loved one find good care to get sober?


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.