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Health
CDC documents premature deaths from heart disease


American Indians and Alaska Natives are more likely to die early from heart disease than any other racial or ethnic group, according to data released on Friday.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2001 alone, it accounted for 29 percent of all deaths in the nation.

That year, about 2,400 Native Americans died from heart disease. The number was less than one-half of one percent of all total deaths from the disease.

But a larger proportion of Native Americans died early than any other group. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 36 percent died prematurely -- before the age of 65 -- from heart disease in 2001.

The rate was more than twice the national rate of premature deaths, or 16.8 percent. And it was more than two and one-half times the rate for White Americans, or 14.7 percent.

Hispanics and Asian-Americans showed similar premature death rates, 23.5 percent and 21.1 percent, respectively. At 31.5 percent, only African-Americans experienced as high a death rate as Native Americans.

"Reducing premature death from heart disease and eliminating disparities will require preventing, detecting, treating, and controlling risk factors for heart disease in young and middle-aged adults," government researchers wrote in last week's edition of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the CDC.

According to the researchers, American Indians and Alaska Natives are at high risk to heart disease due to high rates of smoking. Native adults and youth smoke at nearly twice the rates of their counterparts, according to government statistics.

Tobacco use among Natives is particularly high in Alaska, the Northern Plains and the Pacific Northwest. Of all states, Alaska has the highest rate of premature deaths from heart disease, according to the CDC report.

Additional risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, physical inactivity and obesity. "Premature death from heart disease can be reduced by preventing or treating these risk factors," the researchers wrote in an editorial note. "Public health professionals should focus efforts on prevention and risk reduction at all ages, and particularly at younger ages among racial/ethnic minorities."

Other studies have shown high rates of hypertension and blood cholesterol among Native Americans. They have also shown an alarming rate of diabetes, especially among Native youth. Obesity is an indicator of diabetes.

Researchers have seen some positive signs, however. In December, the CDC found that American Indians were more likely to use preventive services than most other minority groups. Indian men and women are checking their cholesterol and having examinations for diabetes-related conditions at rates approaching the national average.

The release of the CDC statistics came as Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson apologized for sanitizing a report on health disparities. References to high rates of disease among Native Americans and other minorities were toned down by political appointees, something Thompson said was a "mistake."

"African-Americans and Native Americans die younger than any other racial or ethnic group," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a doctor, said earlier this month. "African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic Americans are at least twice as likely to suffer from diabetes and experience serious complications. These gaps are unacceptable."

Frist is sponsoring the Closing the Health Care Gap Act in an effort to reduce health disparities. The bill seeks to coordinate and improve data collection among minorities. Tribes would be eligible for grants to improve access to health care.

February is American Heart Month. This year alone, the CDC estimates that more than a half a million Americans will die after suffering a heart attack.

Get the Study:
Disparities in Premature Deaths from Heart Disease --- 50 States and the District of Columbia, 2001 | American Heart Month --- February 2004

Relevant Links:
Office of Minority Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - http://www.cdc.gov/omh
Indian Health Service - http://www.ihs.gov
Department of Health and Human Services - http://www.hhs.gov

Health Disparities Bill:
Closing the Health Care Gap Ac (S.2091)