Adolescents whose families emigrated from Asia improve their health habits with every generation born in the United States, more than their white and Latino peers, new research suggests.
"We were pleased by the marked improvement in physical activity and use of bicycle helmets, seat belts and sunscreen for Asian adolescents across the generations," said lead author Michele Allen, M.D. "This suggests that public health messages are reaching this population," said Allen, currently an investigator in the health disparities research program at the University of Minnesota.
Allen and former colleagues at the UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion examined data from a 2001 California-wide survey and included responses from 5,801 adolescents, age 12 to 17, who were asked about their preventive health habits including wearing bicycle helmets, using seat belts, physical activity and nutrition.
The study findings appear in the online version of the American Journal of Public Health.
Although preventive habits of first-generation Asians were worse than those of whites, Asians caught up with and surpassed whites by second and third generations, with physical activity increasing and hours spent watching TV dropping.
As for nutrition, both Asian and Latino first-generation adolescents had better nutrition habits than whites; however, Latinos lost this advantage by the third generation as diets grew progressive less healthy.
The results showed that Asians ate more vegetables daily and drank less soda: 1.7 servings of vegetables and 0.8 cans of soda compared with 1.3 servings and 1.2 cans for whites.
"We can hypothesize that if immigrants are exposed to the right information associated with adopting preventive behaviors they will adopt it," said Luisa Borrell, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.
The authors concluded, however, that all groups, regardless of race or ethnicity, might benefit from more education on the recommended ways to stay healthy.
"An ideal approach would be one in which adolescents heard the same health message from a number of different sources, presented in a number of different manners," said Allen, who is currently an investigator in the health disparities research program at the University of Minnesota.
Borrell agreed: "The best opportunities for teaching appropriate preventive habits such as the ones presented by the authors are at home with parents and at schools. Parents and teachers should point out not only the importance of these habits but also their implications for health now and later in the lives of children and adolescents."
Allen said more research is needed to compare family, school and community influences on health behaviors to better understand why there are differences in outcomes between racial/ethnic groups with high immigrant populations.