Lowest and fastest life expectancy for Native Americans and Alaska Natives

Brief news

Early estimates show that COVID-19 was still a major factor in reducing the life expectancy of American newborns last year – it fell from 77 in 2020 to around 76.

However, the CDC Analysis also shows that since the start of the pandemic, life expectancy has declined much more – and much faster – for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The life expectancy of this group decreased by 6.6 years between 2019 and 2021, ending at 65.2 years.

However, Spiro M. Manson says there is still plenty of hope for those numbers to rebound. Manson directs the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at the University of Colorado.

“An article from the New England Journal of Medicine underline …that vaccination rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives were the highest of any segment of American society,” said Manson, who is also Pembina Chippewa from the Turtle Mountain Reservation in the North Dakota.

Beyond vaccinations, Manson said AIAN communities and medical professionals can now get back on track to fight diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Although the pandemic has been a setback, he said they have made tremendous progress before and he expects them to continue that work.

“I have every reason to believe, as we now move towards ‘normal 2.0’…that we can once again turn our attention to tackling these extremely debilitating chronic conditions that are so prevalent in tribal communities,” did he declare.

Manson explained that chronic health conditions, lack of access to medical care/infrastructure, and economic challenges in tribal communities are some of the reasons why the pandemic has been so deadly.

However, he noted that not all tribes experience this pain in the same way.

“These rates of reduced life expectancy vary wildly by region, and they vary wildly by tribe. From the lowest current life expectancy rates in the northern plains to the much higher life expectancies in the southwest,” he said.

Manson added that they’ve come a long way since the early 1970s, when “the average life expectancy of a Native American male, for example, was 47.5 years.”

The CDC’s latest life expectancy estimates are from 2021, before significant federal funding had plenty of time to strengthen infrastructure and access to energy, clean water and internet services around tribal communities.

“There is no doubt about the value that [telehealth] services provide. They provide much more immediate access to specialty and tertiary care that is not available in these isolated and rural communities,” Manson said.

Manson is confident that tribal communities will overcome the health challenges they face “by capitalizing on the best that the biomedical world has to offer us as well as the best that our own traditional healing ceremonies and practices have to offer.”

Beyond COVID-19, another major reason for declining life expectancies across all racial groups last year was “unintentional injury deaths,” which, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, were largely due to drug overdoses. About 107,000 last year, people died of overdoses as the deadly drug fentanyl continues to cross the United States

Many blame the pandemic and the effects of isolation on mental health for exacerbating the growing overdose epidemic.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in the Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the public broadcasting company.

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