May 28 (UPI) -- Native Americans and Alaska Natives are up to three times more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, according to a scientific statement published Thursday by the journal Circulation.
And diabetes contributes to higher rates of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes among these populations, the authors said.
Heart disease rates are approximately 50 percent higher among the 5.2 million Americans who self-identify as American Indian and Alaska Native compared to white Americans.
And more than one-third of deaths attributed to heart disease in these communities occurs before age 65.
The statement provides an overview for the public, health care providers and policy makers about the major challenges faced by this population, which has one of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the United States.
"There are urgent cardiovascular health risks for American Indians and Alaska Natives that health care professionals and policy makers should not ignore," Dr. Khadijah Breathett, chair of the writing committee for the Scientific statement, said in a press release.
"We strongly encourage patients, health care professionals and most importantly, community leaders to take steps to prevent and fight cardiovascular disease," added Breathett, who is an assistant professor of cardiology at the University of Arizona and a cardiologist at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson.
Access to healthcare for American Indians and Alaska natives is limited, according to the American Heart Association.
In 2017, 19 percent of this population did not have health insurance. While the federal health program, Indian Health Service, provides healthcare for 1.6 million people, that accounts for less than one-third of the total American Indian and Alaska Native population in the United States, the authors of the statement said.
Currently, 21 percent of American Indians also live below the federal poverty line, according to the AHA.
Overall health, researchers say, is an issue in these communities. Obesity, a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, affects up to 40 percent of American Indians, the authors of the statement said. The Strong Heart Study, cited in the statement, found that some of the risk for obesity and diabetes is genetically inherited within these communities.
In addition, nearly 32 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives use tobacco, a rate almost twice as high as other ethnic populations in the United States, the authors said.
Community-based, culturally appropriate interventions are needed to reduce rates of type 2 diabetes and heart disease in these communities. These, the authors said, should include specific focus on improving dietary and health decisions, as well as addressing groundwater contamination issues in many of the areas American Indians live.
"To better prevent and treat cardiovascular disease in American Indians and Alaska Natives, it's imperative to control risk factors and implement community-based interventions that address social determinants of health," Chiadi E. Ndumele, Robert Meyerhoff assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said in a commentary published with the scientific statement.