Natives more at risk

Survey: Alaska Natives smoke more, exercise less than other state residents

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2000

Alaska Natives are hit harder than other state residents by health problems such as tobacco use and lack of leisure time exercise, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The survey also found Alaskans as a whole apparently are less obese than those in other states.

Nearly 1,500 adult Alaskans were questioned by telephone in the recently-released survey from 1997 titled ``Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance.'' Respondents included 1,077 white Alaskans, 313 Alaska Natives or Native Americans, and 66 Hispanics. Results were not compiled for groups with less than 50 respondents.

Residents were quizzed about behavioral risk factors such as avoiding physical activity, shunning mammograms and cervical cancer tests, overeating, smoking and not wearing seat belts.

Among Alaska Natives, 41.3 percent said they smoke cigarettes, while 24.7 percent of whites did. A total of 37.2 percent of Alaska Natives said they engaged in no leisure activity during the past 30 days, compared to 22.5 percent of Alaska's white population.

According to the CDC report, 33.5 percent of Alaska Natives reported having no health-care coverage, while 18.4 percent of whites had none.

Binge drinking was mentioned as a part of their lifestyle by 17.7 percent of Alaska Natives - only a little more than whites at 17.1 percent.

Although the respondents in the study were adults, the behavior of adults influences the lifestyle and health of children, said Mary Adelmeyer, a wellness advocate with Tlingit-Haida Headstart.

``If parents are sitting in front of the TV with a clicker eating junk food, drinking and smoking, it affects their children,'' Adelmeyer said.

From birth to three years of age, children develop a sense of self and a sense of how they interact with the world, she said.

``If they have parents who are active, they will lead a more stimulating lifestyle and have better emotional, physical and cognitive development,'' Adelmeyer said.

In at least one risk area, Native Alaskans scored markedly better than whites. When women were asked about mammograms within the past two years, 93.5 percent of Alaska Natives reported having the diagnostic breast x-ray, while only 76.6 percent of whites had done so.

A separate study by the Surgeon General in 1999 said more than 40 percent of all Americans are obese. Alaska residents in the 1997 CDC survey weighed in with lower numbers, with 19.4 percent of whites and 23.3 percent of Natives declaring themselves overweight.

Obesity and tobacco use are two of 11 priority health concerns listed by SEARHC in an April 1998 report, ``The Health of Our People.'' Of the deaths in 1994 among Southeast Alaska Natives, the report says ``half are preventable through lifestyle changes.'' Those changes include giving up tobacco, drinking less alcohol, consuming a lower-fat diet and exercising more.

Obesity isn't just thunder thighs or double chins, SEARHC noted. Lack of physical activity is a behavioral risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, osteoporosis and depression.

To combat obesity, SEARHC organized a clan exercise competition that started Saturday.

The Eagles Vs. Ravens Walk Contest ``has been one of our most successful programs ever,'' said Avis Hayden, a SEARHC health systems specialist.

The contest runs until June 3. Walkers earn one point for every 30 minutes of walking or other healthy physical activity. Incentives include 100-mile hats and Eagle/Raven scarves. The grand prize is a round trip ticket to Seattle.

Identifying and tracking health gaps between racial and ethnic groups state-by-state have gained impetus because the minority population of the U.S. is rising. In 1970, people in racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 16 percent of the population. By 1998, that proportion was 27 percent. By 2050, racial and ethnic minorities are expected to account for nearly half of the population.

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