Rutgers IFH study: Does age at migration matter when it comes to mental health?


NEW BRUNSWICK (Oct. 14, 2019) –– Immigrants age 65 and older tend to have poorer mental health than their counterparts born in the United States. Mental health is a major concern for this rapidly growing segment of the population, and researchers are trying to understand the protective and risk factors.

Leading a team of researchers from the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging ResearchDr. May Guo, PhD, associate professor at the University of Iowa School of Social Work, drew on her own experiences and challenges as an immigrant in formulating the questions for a new study published in the current issue of The Gerontologist.

“I am an immigrant and I wonder whether it makes a difference in terms of later life mental health if you came to this country as a middle-aged person, or an older person,” Guo said.

Guo and the other researchers wanted to know two things specifically: if people who migrated later in life have poorer mental health than those who migrated earlier in life, and whether factors like socioeconomic status, physical health, language skills, and family and social relationships might play a role in that.

They focused on Chinese immigrants and used sample data from the Population Study of Chinese Elderly (PINE) in Chicago. The PINE Study is the most extensive epidemiological cohort study of Chinese American older adults, and Guo said it was the only dataset available that allowed the researchers to understand the diverse and culturally relevant issues among this rapidly growing but understudied population.

The findings in relation to the first question were mixed, but interesting, Guo added. On average, people who migrated later in life reported good or very good quality of life yet they were more depressed than those who migrated earlier in life.

“Depression is assessed based on how you are feeling within the last two weeks, whereas quality of life is an overall assessment of your life situation,” Guo explained. “It may be that Chinese immigrants who migrated in later life felt they had a better life overall than those who still remained in China, or maybe they have been through hard times before and have better emotional adaptability.”

Guo also pointed out that older Chinese immigrants may feel a sense of achievement at migrating to the United States.

“Again, I think about my own experience,” Guo said. “If my parents were here in this country, although they may have all the common difficulties experienced by older immigrants such as language barriers, economic hardship, or weakened social ties, they are here in the most prosperous country on earth.”

The findings confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis in relation to the second question. People who migrated later in life tended to have lower incomes, less access to health insurance, struggles with language skills, and fewer social relationships –– factors that also may have contributed to the symptoms of depression.

Also noteworthy was the fact that people who migrated later in life tended to have higher education levels than those who migrated earlier in life. However, it appeared they were unable to get high-paying jobs in the United States due to barriers like language skills.

Overall, Guo said the findings contribute to the knowledge base about older Chinese immigrants and the understanding of the diversity within the population as well as the unique experiences and stressors they may be dealing with.

Guo said it’s important for providers to ask immigrant’s history of migration, in order to incorporate that understanding and to help deliver more targeted and effective services and treatment.