Fear of deportation puts Latinas at increased risk for heart disease

The stress put upon Latinas by increased police presence in their communities, threats of deportation and shifting federal immigration law could be leading to poor cardiovascular health in minority communities across the U.S., a study published this week in Annals of Behavioral Medicine suggests.

Evidence linking deportation worries to declining mental health has piled up in recent years, but no quantitative research linking fear to cardiovascular risk existed prior to this study, lead author Jacqueline M. Torres, PhD, MPH, and colleagues wrote. In a country where deportations have skyrocketed from 189,000 in 2001 to 333,000 in 2015, surveys have shown nearly half of all U.S.- and foreign-born Latinos are worried about the deportation of themselves, their family members or others close to them.

In prior research, these concerns have been associated with increased depression, anxiety and overall health, the authors wrote, and Latinos especially worried about their immigration status often avoid the U.S. healthcare system altogether.

“In focus groups, immigrant respondents in the northeastern U.S.A. reported elevated blood pressures, in addition to increased depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances as the result of being targeted by immigration authorities,” Torres et al. wrote. “Mexican-origin mothers in Arizona reported restricting travel for the purchase of healthy foods and limiting outdoor physical activity in order to avoid contact with authorities.”

Though these findings stemmed from qualitative studies, they were enough to prompt Torres and colleagues’ present work. The team drew a sample of 545 Mexican-origin women from California’s Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) study and interviewed the cohort in either Spanish or English. Women were asked one question: “We know that many families are worried about deportation, either for themselves or for their family and friends. How much worry would you say this causes you?”

Women answered on a sliding scale—either “not too much worry,” “a moderate amount of worry” or “a lot of worry”—and clinicians measured their vitals and cardiovascular basics.

Nearly half of all respondents reported feeling “a lot of worry” about the subject, according to the study. Just under 28 percent said they weren’t too worried, while 24 percent reported a moderate level of stress. Reporting the highest level of distress was associated with increased BMI, a higher prevalence of obesity and a larger waistline, Torres and co-authors found. It was also linked to greater pulse pressure, which can be a precursor to heart failure and peripheral arterial disease.

While there weren’t any significant associations between worry about deportation and hypertension, diastolic blood pressure or mean arterial pressure, moderate worry was tied to an increased systolic blood pressure, which is a risk factor for congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction and stable angina.

“Worry about deportation could also compound the adverse cardiovascular impacts of other acute and chronic stressors, including financial and occupational strain and discrimination,” the authors wrote.

Torres said in a release from the University of California, Berkeley, that the results of her study weren’t, unfortunately, shocking.

“These results are not surprising, given what we know about the effects of other societal stressors on physical wellbeing, including cardiovascular risk factors,” she said. “They are nevertheless heartbreaking, because they suggest that individuals who are targeted by immigration enforcement practices—and live in fear of the effects on their family and community members—might bear a dual burden related to the adverse consequences of this immense stress on their physical health. These farmworker families are critical to the success of the agricultural economy in California and deserve our support.”