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Social Determinants of Physical Self-Rated Health among Asian Americans; Comparison of Six Ethnic Groups

Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture and Health (CRECH), School of Public Health, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA
Department of Psychiatry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA
School of Public Health, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Societies 2018, 8(2), 24;
Submission received: 25 February 2018 / Revised: 13 April 2018 / Accepted: 17 April 2018 / Published: 24 April 2018


Background: A growing literature has revealed ethnic group differences in determinants and meanings of their self-rated health (SRH). Aim: To explore ethnic variations in the effects of socioeconomic determinants on poor physical SRH of Asians in the United States. Methods: Data came from the National Asian American Survey (NAAS), 2008, with 4977 non-U.S. born Asian Americans, including Asian Indian (n = 1150), Chinese (n = 1350), Filipino (n = 603), Japanese (n = 541), Korean (n = 614), and Vietnamese (n = 719) Americans. Demographic factors (age and gender), socioeconomic status (SES; education, employment, income, and marital status), and physical SRH were measured. Ethnic-specific logistic regressions were applied for data analysis where physical SRH was the outcome and demographic and social determinants were predictors. Results: According to logistic regressions, no social determinant was consistently associated with physical SRH across all ethnic groups. Being married was associated with better physical SRH in Asian Indians and worse SRH in the Filipino group. Education was associated with better SRH in Asian Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese Americans. High income was associated with better SRH in Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese Americans. Employment was associated with better SRH in Filipino Americans. Conclusion: Social determinants of physical SRH vary across ethnic groups of Asian Americans. Different ethnic groups are differently vulnerable to various social determinants of health. Application of single item SRH measures may be a source of bias in studies of health with ethnically diverse populations. Policy makers should be aware that the same change in social determinants may not result in similar change in the health of ethnic groups.

1. Introduction

Self-rated health (SRH) measures are brief and cost-effective methods to estimate population health in large-scale epidemiological studies [1,2,3,4,5]. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has recommended the use of single-item SRH measures as a standard tool to monitor the health of Americans [6,7,8]. Single-item SRH measures [9] independently predict a wide range of physical and mental health outcomes, such as health care use [10,11], chronic disease [2,12,13,14], and mortality [15].
Individuals are not expected to seek help unless they perceive their own SRH as poor [10,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22]. That means perception of own health as poor is a part of the cognitive process that is involved in the health-care seeking process [16,17]. Although other factors such as trust, access, and socioeconomic status (SES) also play a role in determining who seeks care [18], populations should not be expected to seek care unless they feel a need for it. Given the central role of poor SRH in the process of health care use [23], we need to better understand what physical SRH actually reflects across ethnic groups [2,12,13,14,24,25,26,27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36].
A growing body of research has shown that demographic, SES, and health determinants impact the SRH of diverse ethnic groups differently [12,26,28]. The very same factors show different patterns of association with SRH across ethnic groups [30,31,32,33,34,35,36]. Overall, it is believed that poor SRH better reflects the real health need for White, rather than non-White, populations, including Asians, African Americans, and Hispanics [12]. For instance, poor SRH better predicts premature risk of mortality for Whites than non-Whites [30]. Even within a racial group, such as Asians, ethnic variations exist in correlates of SRH [28,31]. However, very few studies have compared ethnic groups of Asians in the United States for social determinants of physical SRH.


This study was conducted to compare six ethnic groups of Asian Americans for social determinants of poor physical SRH.

2. Methods

2.1. Design and Setting

Using a cross-sectional design, this study was a secondary analysis of the National Asian American Survey (NAAS), 2008. The study is on the six largest national-origin Asian groups in the United States. The study was funded by the James Irvine Foundation, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, Carnegie Corporation, and Russell Sage Foundation [37].

2.2. Interviews

Data collection was conducted using telephone interviews. Interviews were conducted between 12 August and 29 October, 2008. Survey interviews were performed in eight languages, which were chosen according to the interviewee’s preference. Interview languages were English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Japanese, and Hindi. Overall, 40 percent of the interviews were conducted in English, as it was the preferred language by the participant. The mode of data collection was computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI). Forty-seven percent of respondents (12% of all valid numbers dialed) agreed to take the survey [37].

2.3. Data Collection

The study measured demographics, SES, political behaviors, as well as experiences related to immigration in the United States. Some of the constructs measured included discrimination, religious attendance, and social networks. The interviews took about 29 min on average [37].

2.4. Participants

The NAAS included 5159 individuals who all self-identified as Asian/Asian American residents of the United States. Asians/Asian Americans were defined as adults in the United States who had a family background from an Asian country. The study excluded Middle Eastern countries. The study sample composed of 4977 non-U.S. born Asian Americans including Asian Indian (n = 1150), Chinese (n = 1350), Filipino (n = 603), Japanese (n = 541), Korean (n = 614), and Vietnamese (n = 719). We did not include 182 additional respondents who identified as multi-ethnic or were from other Asian countries [37].

2.5. Ethics

The NAAS study protocol was approved by the University of California (Irvine and Riverside) Institutional Review Board (IRB). All participants provided consent.

2.6. Measures

Physical Self-Rated Health. We asked participants “How would you rate your overall physical health?” Response items included the following five categories: (1) excellent; (2) very good; (3) good; (4) fair; and (5) poor. Single-item SRH measures strongly correlate with multi-item health measures [9]. Single-item SRH measures also predict risk of mortality, net of confounders [15]. Reliability of single-item SRH measures is shown to be high [38]. These single-item measures also strongly correlate with standard well-being scales [38].
Demographic Factors. Demographic factors included gender (dichotomous variable, males [reference category] vs. females) and age (continuous measure).
Socioeconomic Factors. The study measured four socioeconomic indicators, namely education level, household income, marital status, and employment. Education was measured as the highest level completed of the following: (1) primary or grammar school; (2) some high school; (3) high school graduate; (4) some college; (5) college graduate; (6) all Masters (MA, MSc, MPH, MPA, MPP, MArch, Med, MBA); (7) Law degree (JD); (8) Doctorate (all other Doctorates; Ph.D, Ed.D, Psych D) or Medical Degree (M.D., D.O.; Dentistry, Optometry). Annual household income was measured as (1) Up to $20,000; (2) $20,000 to $35,000; (3) $35,000 to $50,000; (4) $50,000 to $75,000; (5) $75,000 to $100,000; (6) $100,000 to $125,000; (7) $125,000 to $150,000; and (8) $150,000 and over. Marital status was defined as being (1) married or living as married; vs. (2) others (including widowed, divorced, separated, and never married). Education and income were conceptualized as continuous measures. Marital status and employment were treated as dichotomous measures.
Ethnicity. In this study, ethnicity was self-identified and included Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. The items to measure ethnicity were by these questions: (1) What race or ethnicity do you consider yourself? (2) Are there any other racial or ethnic groups that describe you? (3) What part of Asia is that part of your family from? (4) What country were you born in?

2.7. Statistical Analysis

2.7.1. Weights

To accommodate the National Asian American Survey (NAAS) multi-stage sampling design, we applied sampling weights to all our data analysis. This approach enabled us to generate nationally representative statistics. Taylor series linearization was used to estimate design-based standard errors and variances. To perform our subsample analyses, we applied sub-pop survey commands.

2.7.2. Analysis Plan

Stata 13.0 (Stata Corp., College Station, TX, USA) was used to conduct the analyses. For descriptive statistics, we reported mean (SE) and proportions (SE). For multivariable analysis, we ran logistic regressions in the pooled sample, as well as in each ethnic group. In all models, poor SRH was the outcome. First, we ran a model in the pooled sample. Then we ran ethnic-specific models. Odds Ratio (OR) with 95% Confidence Intervals (CI) were reported. A p-value less than 0.05 was considered significant.

3. Results

3.1. Descriptive Statistics

Table 1 provides a summary of descriptive statistics for each ethnic group. Best SRH was reported by Asian Indians, followed by Japanese. Worst SRH was reported by Koreans, followed by Vietnamese. Asian Indian and Other Asians were the youngest group, while Filipinos and Koreans were the oldest group. Asian Indian and Japanese had the highest education attainment, and Vietnamese had the lowest education level. Asian Indian and Japanese had the highest income, and Chinese and Vietnamese had the lowest income (Table 1).

3.2. Logistic Regression in the Pooled Sample

Table 2 summarizes a logistic regression model, with poor physical SRH as the outcome in the pooled sample. Based on this model, age, education, income, employment, and marital status were associated with SRH (Table 2).

3.3. Logistic Regression across Ethnic Groups

Table 3 also shows the results of logistic regressions specific to each ethnic group. Ages higher than 50 were associated with worse physical SRH in Asian Indian, Chinese, and Korean Americans. Being married was associated with better physical SRH in Asian Indians, and worse SRH in Filipinos. Female gender was associated with better SRH among Japanese Americans. Education was associated with better SRH in Asian Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese Americans. High income was associated with better SRH in Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese Americans. Employment was associated with better SRH in Filipino Americans (Table 3).

4. Discussion

This study explored ethnic variation in social determinants of physical SRH in Asian Americans. The results suggested that social determinants of physical SRH vary across ethnic groups of Asian Americans. That is, different ethnic groups are differently vulnerable to various social determinants of health.
Asian Indians, and then Japanese, had the highest SES (education and income), so ethnic groups of Asian Americans vary in their class. In line with SES, Asian Indians reported the highest level of physical SRH. The main effects of ethnicity on SRH were significantly above and beyond demographic and social determinants of health. This finding suggests that not all of the associations between ethnicity and SRH are due to social determinants.
In the pooled sample, education, employment, marital status, and income were associated with high SRH among Asian Americans. However, none of these associations were consistent across ethnic groups. Age is a risk factor for poorer SRH in the literature. In a recent study using the Collaborative Psychiatric Epidemiology Surveys (CPES) 2001–2003 data, high age was associated with poor mental SRH in Vietnamese, Filipino, and Chinese, but not other Asians [39].
For Asian Indians and Koreans, income was not associated with SRH. For other groups, income was at least marginally protective. Income was similarly protective for ethnic groups in the United States [40]. Income may be a more salient determinant of health in U.S. than some other countries [41]. Education and income have shown diminished returns for minorities in the United States [40,42]. Minority groups with high education and income may even be at risk of worse mental health [43,44,45,46,47].
With Japanese being the only exception, gender did not independently correlate with physical SRH in any of the ethnic groups, when SES indicators were controlled. Female gender was also not associated with poor SRH in the pooled sample, again when SES was controlled. Although an association between gender and SRH is reported, ethnic groups differ in these effects [41,48]. SRH may differently reflect health of men and women [49]. Based on the sponge hypothesis [50], women are more aware of their physical symptoms [49], so their reports may be more accurate than men’s reports. For men, poor SRH is more likely to represent life-threatening conditions than mild health problems. As a result, poor SRH better predicts the risk of mortality in men, rather than older female Americans [30].
The associations between ethnicity, gender, SES, and SRH are complex. In a study in Costa Rica, Uruguay, Argentina, Barbados, and Cuba, chronic disease explained gender disparities in subjective health. Such mediation was not found in the other countries [41]. In another study, in Chinese and Cubans, but not other ethnic groups (i.e., Vietnamese, Filipino, other Asian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, other Hispanic, African American, and non-Latino Whites), female gender was a risk factor for poor physical and mental SRH [39].
The direction of the association between marital status and physical SRH was reversed for Asian Indians and Filipinos. Married individuals report better SRH due to causation or selection mechanisms [51]. Married individuals have significantly lower mortality rates than unmarried persons [52]. The health gain of marital status may be smaller for minorities than Whites [53]. Future research should explore diminished health return of education, employment, marital status, and even income for Asian Americans in the United States. Similar diminished return of marital status [53] and other SES indicators [54,55] have been reported for other minority populations, such as African Americans.

5. Limitations

The study had a few limitations. First, the outcome was a single-item SRH. Validity of SRH may vary across ethnic groups of Asian Americans. A second limitation of the study was that only 47% of respondents (12% of all valid numbers dialed) agreed to take the survey. A third limitation was the possibility of measurement bias due to social desirability and self-serving bias, which could differ for populations by gender, age, and ethnicity. Finally, the current study did not collect data on medical conditions and comorbidities.

6. Conclusions

To conclude, demographic and social determinants of physical SRH vary across different ethnic groups of Asian Americans. Different ethnic groups may be differently vulnerable to various demographic and SES indicators on SRH. These ethnic differences may cause bias in cross-ethnic comparison of self-rated health.

Author Contributions

S.A. designed the current work and analyzed the data. A.K. prepared the first draft of the manuscript. Both authors revised the paper and confirmed the final draft.


The study was funded by the Eagleton Institute of Politics, James Irvine Foundation, Rutgers University, Carnegie Corporation, and Russell Sage Foundation.


Shervin Assari is supported by the Richard Tam Foundation at University of Michigan Depression Center and the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund. Anurima Kumar is an undergraduate student at University of Michigan. Data were downloaded from Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. NAAS was conducted by the University of California, Riverside (Principle Investigator: Karthick Ramakrishnan) [37].

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


Consent was obtained from all participants included in the study. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


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Table 1. Descriptive statistics.
Table 1. Descriptive statistics.
VariablePooled SampleAsian IndianChineseFilipinoJapaneseKoreanVietnamese
Not Married63214.310711.213910.910821.95821.18013.610915.6
Excellent to Good338874.793191.791270.540078.323081.936661.544563.7
Poor or Fair114625.3848.338129.511121.75118.122938.525436.3
Household Income4.312.275.721.983.932.264.492.124.911.964.
SE: Standard Error; SES: Socioeconomic Status; SRH: Self-Rated Health.
Table 2. Factors associated with poor physical self-rated health (SRH) in the pooled sample.
Table 2. Factors associated with poor physical self-rated health (SRH) in the pooled sample.
OR95% CI
Gender (women)1.090.84–1.41
Age ≥ 501.94 ***1.46–2.57
Education0.84 ***0.77–0.93
Employment0.69 **0.52–0.91
Household Income0.87 ***0.81–0.94
Marital Status1.47 *1.02–2.12
Asian Indian1.000.48–2.08
Chinese2.38 **1.38–4.11
Filipino1.90 *1.04–3.48
Korean4.86 ***2.74–8.60
Vietnamese2.01 *1.13–3.59
# p < 0.1; * p < 0.05; ** p < 0.01; *** p < 0.001.
Table 3. Factors associated with poor physical self-rated health (SRH) across ethnic groups.
Table 3. Factors associated with poor physical self-rated health (SRH) across ethnic groups.
Asian IndianChineseFilipinoJapaneseKoreanVietnamese
OR95% CIOR95% CIOR95% CIOR95% CIOR95% CIOR95% CI
Gender (Women)0.680.28–1.661.350.89–2.040.930.45–1.920.38 *0.16–0.941.360.80–2.310.960.52–1.78
Age ≥ 502.74 *1.19–6.331.85 **1.19–2.861.160.52–2.592.290.65–8.082.66 ***1.54–4.611.700.85–3.42
Education0.72 *0.53–0.970.86 *0.75–0.990.910.70–1.190.920.69–1.230.84 *0.71–1.000.64 ***0.50–0.84
Employment (Employed)0.860.34–2.210.850.56–1.290.44 *0.20–0.951.020.45–2.280.860.48–1.530.55 #0.29–1.07
Household Income1.020.80–1.320.89 *0.81–0.980.73 **0.59–0.890.76 #0.57–1.010.950.83–1.090.81 *0.66–1.00
Marital Status (Married)0.30 *0.10–0.901.510.86–2.662.37 *1.01–5.601.460.55–3.851.500.66–3.441.800.85–3.80
Intercept0.820.16–4.220.46 #0.18––4.850.380.03–4.420.620.23–1.671.910.53–6.87
# p < 0.1; * p < 0.05; ** p < 0.01; *** p < 0.001; SES: Socioeconomic Status; SRH: Self-Rated Health.

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Assari, S.; Kumar, A. Social Determinants of Physical Self-Rated Health among Asian Americans; Comparison of Six Ethnic Groups. Societies 2018, 8, 24.

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Assari S, Kumar A. Social Determinants of Physical Self-Rated Health among Asian Americans; Comparison of Six Ethnic Groups. Societies. 2018; 8(2):24.

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Assari, Shervin, and Anurima Kumar. 2018. "Social Determinants of Physical Self-Rated Health among Asian Americans; Comparison of Six Ethnic Groups" Societies 8, no. 2: 24.

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