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Health of Mexican American children focus of new University of Texas at Austin study

Dr. Yolanda C. Padilla, associate professor of social work at The University of Texas at Austin, has received a three-year, $750,000 grant to study why Mexican American children experience disproportionately poorer health than other ethnic groups.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Dr. Yolanda C. Padilla, associate professor of social work at The University of Texas at Austin, has received a three-year, $750,000 grant to study why Mexican American children experience disproportionately poorer health than other ethnic groups.

Padilla’s research, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health, will involve an analysis of racial and ethnic disparities in child health and development with a focus on Mexican American children from birth to age five. Data for the study will be drawn from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which includes a large sample of Latino families.

The project will involve collaborators from the fields of sociology, psychology and child development and health economics at the university and Columbia University.

The purpose of the study is to extend research on the Mexican American “epidemiological paradox.” It already is known that Mexican American mothers have healthier birth outcomes than expected in view of their low income and inadequate prenatal care, Padilla said.

“What we want to do is improve our understanding of why these babies end up having poor health as children,” she said.

Research shows that in spite of the highly favorable birth outcomes among Mexican Americans, Mexican American children experience disproportionately higher rates of health and developmental deficiencies during their early years.

“Research on the link between conditions during pregnancy and early childhood, which may provide some insight about this unexpected health trajectory, is virtually non-existent,” Padilla said.

One important reason for this gap in knowledge has been the lack of detailed data to simultaneously consider the wide range of potential explanations across time, according to Padilla.

The availability of the Fragile Families data will allow the researchers to study a longitudinal data set using growth curve models to identify differences in child health trajectories. They will look at socioeconomic characteristics and material hardship, immigration history, neighborhood and home environment, social support systems (access to health and public assistance and informal social support) and parental health behaviors.

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, designed to provide new information on the capabilities and relationships of unwed parents, as well as the effects of policies on family formation and child wellbeing, is a joint effort by Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Columbia University’s Social Indicators Survey Center. It was funded by numerous groups around the country, including The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and St. David’s Hospital Foundation.

The significance for policy of gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms that affect child health and development outcomes in the Mexican American population is underscored in the National Institutes of Health Strategic Research Plan to Reduce and Ultimately Eliminate Health Disparities, 2002-2006 (Office of Research on Minority Health), said Padilla. The report concluded that as a result of very high poverty rates, Hispanic children experience a disproportionate array of health problems and are also at greater risk for developmental and learning delays, as well as social, emotional and behavioral problems.

For more information contact: Nancy Neff, 512-471-6504.