Being American May Be a Hazard to Your Health

America is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, so how could people from much poorer ones be better off health-wise than us?


This week, the National Academies of Sciences released a report that immigrants are assimilating at an astonishingly rapid pace. Among many surprising facts, they are learning English even faster than their early 20th century counterparts.

But the most telling data is not about them, but about us. New immigrants are actually healthier — less likely to die from cancer and heart disease or have chronic illnesses — than people born in the United States. America is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, so how could people from much poorer ones be better off health-wise than us?

The question was glossed over by the researchers, but it deserves our attention. There are many competing and uncomfortable reasons that could lead to an explanation. For one, we are the most medicated country on the planet, which may sound like we should not be so unhealthy, except that, as the CDC reports, nearly half of us used some sort of prescription pill in the past 30 days, and according the World Health Organization, half of that number is on some sort of long-term mental health medication.

It’s even been suggested that immigrants returning to their place of birth actually reduces their risks for major diseases and health problems. 

Why are we so anxious/nervous/tired/depressed? Well, it could be our diet. Nearly half of our diet consists of oils, fats, and processed grains. That’s a 92 percent caloric increase from 40 years ago. There are a variety of reasons as to why — we eat out more, eat more frozen food, etc. It’s even been studied in women that this toxic approach to eating causes inflammation that then leads to depression and other psychological disorders.

It’s even been suggested that immigrants returning to their place of birth actually reduces their risks for major diseases and health problems. A few years ago, The New York Times reported that a Greek emigre to Long Island was diagnosed with cancer in the 1960s, but then decided to move back to home in Greece to die. He lived instead. At the time of the article’s publication, he was 97 or 102, depending on whom you asked. He was on no medications or treatment for the cancer (which eventually went into remission), and the article noted that diet, attitude, and culture played a large role in not only his longevity but also the age of his fellow centenarians in his hometown.

Does our over-medicated, nutritionally deficient, sleepy culture mean that immigrants would be better off in their home countries? No, not necessarily.

Finally, there’s sleep. Or the lack thereof. The CDC has called Americans’ inability to get a good night of it a public health problem, and the American Psychological Association urges that not sleeping leads to a “heightened risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and depression.” These are conditions, of course, that we take medication for and that are then exacerbated by our poor diets. See a pattern?

Does our over-medicated, nutritionally deficient, sleepy culture mean that immigrants would be better off in their home countries? No, not necessarily. But we’d be wise to not assume that the American way of life is superior to any foreign one.

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Daphne Muller is a New York City-based writer who has written for Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and reviewed books for ELLE and Publishers Weekly. Most recently, she completed a novel and screenplay. You can follow her on Instagram @daphonay and on Twitter @DaphneEMuller.

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