Maintaining links with your cultural heritage is good for your health

  • Date

    Wed 28 Nov 18

Renee Luthra

People from ethnic minorities coming to live in the UK tend to have healthier lifestyles than those who were born here, but the longer they stay the more bad habits they pick up, according to new research.

The researchers from the ESRC Research Centre on Micro-Social Change, based at Essex, set out to understand the paradox of why immigrants’ life expectancy decreases as they become more immersed in their new country. 


Dr Renee Luthra, from our Department of Sociology, explained: “We know from previous research that, even after taking into account factors such as wealth and geography,  the foreign born generally have better life expectancy than the native born, however, this initial advantage disappears with increasing time in the receiving country.


“This is paradoxical because over time the economic conditions of immigrants generally improve and the stress, associated with moving to somewhere new, reduces so we would expect a positive, rather than negative trend in health. We wanted to find out why the reverse is true.”


Researchers used data from Understanding Society, the largest longitudinal household panel study of its kind, which is based at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex. Thanks to the way Understanding Society is set up, they were able to look in particular at information about people from ethnic minorities.


They investigated what effect someone’s friends, religion and ethnic identity had on their smoking and drinking habits and whether being subjected to ethnic or racial harassment made a difference to their lifestyles.


They found that both men and women who maintain strong links to their ethnic origins are less likely to binge drink, and women are also less likely to smoke. However, those who have weaker ties to others from their home country are more at risk of adopting unhealthy habits. They also found that women who report experiencing ethnic or racial discrimination are also more likely to smoke.  


“Our findings suggest that ethnic maintenance is more protective for women than men, and is more strongly associated with binge drinking than smoking. Our research is important not just when we are looking at  the health of immigrants, but also for the wider debate about immigrant integration and the potential benefits of people maintaining strong links with their cultural, racial and religious backgrounds,” added Dr Luthra.


The research, carried out by Dr Luthra with Understanding Society Director Professor Michaela Benzeval and Research Fellow Dr Alita Nandi, from ISER, has been published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.