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Immigrants to Canada face higher heart risks, study finds

The stressful process of settling down in a new country may be putting Canadian immigrants at risk for health problems down the road, according to a new study.

While many immigrants move to Canada with healthy hearts, the study revealed, the longer they remain in the country the worse their cardiovascular health becomes.

Surpassing risk levels of other people of the same ethnic backgrounds born in Canada, immigrants become more prone to heart disease - which can lead to premature death.

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"Most times when people move to a new country, especially coming to Canada, they're coming for an improvement in their life," said Scott Lear, lead author of the study and a kinesiologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

"(Yet) the 'healthy immigrant effect' that we know fades over time."

Using ultrasound, the researchers measured atherosclerosis - or narrowing of the arteries - in a group of 618 Chinese, European and South Asian Canadians, 460 of whom were immigrants.

Focusing on the carotid artery, which carries blood to the head and neck and is commonly used to monitor a person's pulse, they found that the longer the immigrant had lived in Canada, the greater the thickening of the arterial wall.

The finding, presented yesterday at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Toronto, came independent of other risk factors for atherosclerosis, a major contributor to heart disease and stroke, which are leading causes of death.

"The speculation is that it might be the stress associated with coming to a new country, or the challenges faced by those individuals," Dr. Lear said.

"Settling themselves down, finding a job, finding a place to live, establishing financial security, and in that case health can be secondary or even much lower down on the priority [list]"

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Immigrants also tend to be less savvy when it comes to accessing health care, said Chi-Ming Chow, a Toronto cardiologist who treats many immigrant patients.

"They're older generations, their language is not as good, or they're still learning English as a working language," said Dr. Chow, a spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

It can mean obstacles in finding the right doctor, being able to express themselves and getting over the fear of being misunderstood, he said. Other factors that might contribute to the deterioration of health after moving to Canada include changes in physical activity and diet - such as a greater exposure to fast foods, according to Dr. Chow.

The study's findings highlight a need for health-care providers to become more culturally sensitive when tending to patients, he said.

"This is a wake-up call for Canada," he said. "We must translate and culturally adapt important health messages to our audience."

Dr. Lear, whose study was financed by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, hopes his findings will encourage the creation of health strategies for new Canadians from the moment they arrive.

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"We're a nation that is really aggressively promoting immigration to Canada and it means we should not just be doing a medical screening, but we should be providing services once they come."

Despite the findings, moving to Canada can still have some positive health effects, Dr. Lear added, such as a higher likelihood of quitting smoking.

"You tend to adopt the norms of the society you come to, and there are some benefits in that."

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