Russians' Tale - As Healthy as Americans?

by Suzanne Schreiner & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & ood, dress, language -- there are all kinds of ways to consider how far an immigrant community has acculturated, and health can be a telling barometer of Americanization. In August, the Spokane Regional Health District published the Slavic Community Health Survey, comparing health habits and data among Slavic-speaking immigrants and English-speaking, native-born Americans. At one level, the Slavic community blends seamlessly into Spokane's mostly pale-complected population as just one more European group absorbed into a larger one. But even after more than 15 years, the language and cultural background of the Russian-speaking community make for real distinctions between it and the larger culture.

Because many observe religious restrictions, Slavic adults are much less likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or get divorced than the general population. But they are also less likely to have health insurance, get preventive health screenings (such as pap smears) or be seen by a dentist. More of them report that they live in poverty. They suffer in greater numbers from high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and high stress. Only a small number exercise as recommended or eat the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, and they are also more likely to suffer from obesity.

In keeping with the immigrant pattern, the young take on the habits and attitudes of the surrounding culture more quickly, for good and ill. Though many live in homes in which the adults do not smoke or drink, Slavic teens and young adults use tobacco and alcohol at virtually identical rates to their English-speaking peers. They are only slightly behind English speakers in choosing not to drink and drive. But when it comes to personal safety, they trail American youth in wearing seat belts or using a helmet when riding a bike. And they are far more likely to have been the target of offensive racial comments or physical attacks based on their ethnicity.

A couple of disparities that appear to affect Slavic girls relate to physical violence and weight control. When asked, "[Did] your boyfriend or girlfriend ever hit, slap, or physically hurt you on purpose" in the past 12 months, nearly 21 percent of Slavic youth said yes, compared to 5 percent of English speakers. In general, the unfortunate fact is that it is largely men who hit women, so unless that pattern differs strongly among youth, Slavic girls may be the victims of significantly more violence in relationships. Since weight control is an area where girls are more likely to go to unhealthy extremes than boys, the 32 percent of Slavic youth who reported fasting, taking diet pills, vomiting or taking laxatives, compared to 14 percent of English speakers, are likely to be disproportionately girls. Even factoring in distortions due to small sample size or language barriers, the Slavic population -- though it may resemble Spokane superficially -- has not assimilated totally.

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