The isolation paradox: A comparative study of social support and health across migrant generations in the US

Basak Bilecen*, Raffaele Vacca

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Social isolation and international migration have potentially adverse effects on physical and mental health, and may compound each other when migrants have limited access to supportive social networks. This problem may be particularly serious in older age groups, who are more vulnerable to illness and isolation. We analyze population representative data from a detailed survey of social networks and health in the San Francisco Bay Area, U.S., to compare access to different types of social support and health outcomes among first-generation migrants, second-generation migrants, and nonmigrants between 50 and 70 years old (N = 674). We find that first-generation migrants report systematically lower levels of social support and poorer self-rated health compared to nonmigrants, even after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics. While social support is strongly and positively associated with health in the general population, this relationship is null or, in some cases, reversed among migrants in the first and second generations. These results provide further evidence that migration operates as an adverse social determinant of health, and suggest an isolation paradox: migrants are healthier than nonmigrants only at very low levels of social support, and they do not experience the same beneficial health effects of social support as nonmigrants.
Original languageEnglish
Article number114204
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Early online date6-Jul-2021
Publication statusPublished - Aug-2021


  • Social support
  • social isolation
  • Personal networks
  • Ego-centric network analysis
  • Migration
  • Second-generation
  • UCNets

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