By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

0427-Feature-Tribal health_BlogKaren Sopko, M.D., grew up on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico and knows firsthand from her practice as a cardiologist how heart disease and the risk factors associated with it are striking the Native American community, particularly diabetes.

“Native Americans are definitely at higher risk for diabetes, hypertension and tobacco use,” she said. “And those risk factors have contributed a lot to the development of heart problems in Native American populations, which we haven’t seen before.”

Particularly disturbing is the incidence of patients in their 40s, she said this month, which is National Minority Health Month.

“When we see it in that age distribution, it’s usually that they have really bad uncontrolled diabetes,” said Sopko of the New Mexico Heart Institute in Albuquerque. The practice gets a lot of its referrals from Indian Health Service, a federal health program for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

“I think it’s a cultural trend and a socioeconomic trend unfortunately, because a lot of the patients that we see that live on the reservation, they have kind of poor living conditions and don’t really have enough money to eat healthy,” she said. “Unfortunately they eat a lot of fast foods, are not able to get fresh fruits and vegetables and seafood, as far as eating low-fat protein choices.”

Indeed, a report commissioned by the American Heart Association found the way food is produced, accessed and funded on tribal lands needs to be reworked to fight the obesity and diabetes epidemics plaguing Native Americans.

Feeding Ourselves, released last July, analyzed American Indian and Alaska Native food systems and resulting health disparities and found that Native Americans overall are twice as likely as the rest of the U.S. population to have a nutrition-related health problem.

The report found that most of tribal lands are in food deserts, areas that lack access to healthy food.

More than 80 percent of Native American adults are overweight or obese, according to the Indian Health Service Clinical Reporting System. Four-year-old Native American children are twice as likely to be obese compared with their white counterparts, according to a 2009 study.

Sopko said she takes the opportunity to educate patients who visit her outreach clinic in Gallup, New Mexico, where almost 90 percent are from the reservation, about their continued risk factors and the need to eat healthy and exercise.

“A lot of them tell me they are limited to what they can do. They don’t have access to gyms, and this is on the remote reservation with dirt roads,” she said, adding that a lot of the people there lack running water or electricity.

For some Native Americans, exercise comes in the form of traditional dance. The Pow Wow dance and other aspects of Native American culture will be celebrated at the 33rd Annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, which starts Thursday and runs for three days in Albuquerque.

As for Sopko, she starts each morning by jogging or running 3 miles on the treadmill. Her husband and two children exercise as well. And her family rarely eats out, opting instead to cook healthy meals at home.

“I’ve got to practice what I preach,” she said. “We really work on being healthy.”