Can Alaska Native People Be The Healthiest In The World?

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SPONSORED: Okinawa Centenarians. Nordic grandparents with rosy cheeks. A California community of vegan Seventh-day Adventists.

They are recognized as some of the healthiest people in the world. Are the natives of Alaska on this list?

For the Alaskans who came together to form the first Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium board of directors in 1998, the answer was a loud and clear “yes”.

President Don Kasheveroff, who guided the board through the development of a strategic plan, urged the leadership of the new tribal health consortium to tackle a “big, hairy and bold goal” – a mission and a vision that go beyond everyday life.

“There was a great feeling in the room that people could really see beyond the statistics into a very different future,” said Paul Sherry, who was the first CEO of ANTHC.

The natives of Alaska had already accomplished something once seemed impossible by bringing self-determination to tribal health care. Why stop there?

“He said to me, ‘Why not go for something important?’ Recalls Evelyn Beeter, who has represented unaffiliated tribes on the ANTHC board since 1998. “Why not go? We must be the healthiest people in the world. “

The healthiest people in the world

“Alaska natives are the healthiest people in the world. “

This is the vision that has guided program development and goal setting at ANTHC for over 20 years. Considering some of the well-known challenges facing Alaska Native people, this might seem a bit difficult. But he was not chosen at random. Board members said their research showed them that the traditional lifestyles of Alaskan natives actually had a lot in common with those experienced by people living in long-lived places. and rare diseases.

“We went to investigate where these places are,” said Sherry. “These are New Zealand farm women, and these are people who live in Andorra, and these are people who live in Okinawa. Places where people live (have) always over 100 years.

While there is no single definitive ranking of the healthiest populations in the world, there is a lot of research on where residents tend to live longer and disease-free. In 2017, researcher Dan Buettner identified five “blue zones” where residents age “without health problems like heart disease, obesity, cancer or diabetes”. This list includes places like Loma Linda, Calif., Home to thousands of Seventh-day Adventists whose faith promotes good health – largely vegetarian or vegan diets, regular exercise, and no alcohol or alcohol. other intoxicants. Another blue zone, Okinawa, Japan, is known to have the highest number of centenarians in the world.

Although the blue areas are all located in warmer climates, latitude is not necessarily a limiting factor. In Iceland, where the fish-rich diet resembles some traditional Alaskan native diets, citizens live to age 83 on average and the infant mortality rate is one of the lowest in the world. Finland has launched national programs to tackle its once high rates of smoking and heart disease; the country which had a life expectancy of 68 years in 1960 now has an average lifespan of over 81 years. In fact, people across Scandinavia have a long lifespan and are recognized as some of the healthiest – and happiest – on the planet.

The habits of healthy people

So why aren’t Alaskan natives currently on these lists of the healthiest in the world? The answer lies in the challenges that followed colonization and Americanization – the impact of which is still being felt in Native Alaskan communities.

In 2017, Alaskan natives had a life expectancy of 70.7 years, compared to a national average of 78.69 years. That’s closer to what the life expectancy of the average American would have been in 1960, according to World Bank data. Unintentional injuries, suicide, tobacco use, and obesity all contribute to this disparity, all of which are experienced by Alaskan natives at much higher rates than non-natives. Binge drinking, which has declined among Alaskan natives since the 1990s, is still slightly more common among natives and non-natives of Alaska than in the country as a whole.

“We need to get back to basics of who we are and use those principles to shape our health,” Beeter said.

The criteria vary, but there are common characteristics connecting people who are said to be among the healthiest in the world. They do routine exercises (such as walking) every day, eat and drink in moderation, and live in society. Diets vary from group to group, but they tend towards traditional and regional foods – fish in Scandinavia, sweet potatoes in Okinawa, whole grains in Sardinia. Healthy people have a sense of purpose and belonging. They often belong to faith communities. A clean environment and access to good health care are also part of the equation.

“They’re not rocket science,” Sherry said. “When we looked at that, what people realized is that aboriginal people experience eight out of nine of these probably better than non-aboriginals. They live off the land, they eat natural foods, they breathe clean air.

According to the board of directors, if the natives of Alaska could have access to good medical care, learn to follow the Western diet, and avoid or overcome drug addiction, there was no reason why they shouldn’t be. not ranked among the healthiest people in the world.

“Once upon a time (among the healthiest people in the world),” said Beeter, an Athabascan from the Copper River area. “We all were, once upon a time. The Yupiks and Inupiaq, they eat the ocean over there. We lived on moose, caribou and rabbit and all that. We took care of ourselves. “

A cultural tradition of good health

Traditional Native Alaskan cultures have a lot in common with those considered to be the healthiest in the world: eating the land, living in tight-knit communities with shared values, having a sense of connection and purpose. A sustaining lifestyle also means a lot of daily physical activity, and among other things, the Blue Zone study found that “routine natural movement is one of the most effective ways to increase your lifespan. and a common habit among the world’s longest-lived. populations. “

This is one of the reasons why many tribal groups supplement ANTHC services – such as improved sanitation and comprehensive health care – with cultural programs aimed at reclaiming traditions that have been lost over decades of assimilation. forced.

“Our world has broken down and we’re trying to take all of these pieces back and try to fix it somehow so that we can survive,” Beeter said.

She said it was important to invest in camps and programs that teach livelihood and survival skills, familiarize young people with their land and reinvigorate languages, as many tribal governments and businesses do.

Research shows that not knowing your own culture and language is a trauma that has a direct impact on Native Americans and Alaska Natives. A University of Alaska assessment released earlier this year found that cultural camps have the power to reduce the risk of suicide among Alaskan native youth.

“The problem is still there,” Sherry said. “But what I see is that a lot more people have made choices for sobriety. I think the whole emergence of pride in the culture, in the dance, in the language, in the art, in all of that reflects the fact that people are moving away from addiction issues. These things are coming back very strong now.

“We are strong people,” Beeter said. “We can go back if we think about it. “

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a state-wide nonprofit tribal health organization that works to meet the physical, behavioral and environmental health needs of more than 175,000 Alaskan Native and American Indian living in Alaska so they can achieve the vision of being the healthiest people in the world.

This story was produced by the Creative Services Department of Anchorage Daily News in conjunction with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. DNA writing was not involved in its production.


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