Cherokee Nation report highlights heart disease’s impact

05/21/2019 12:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH – Nearly 500 Native Americans within the Cherokee Nation die each year from heart disease, according to a new report that also points out a financial burden in the millions.

“While heart disease can mostly be prevented, it is the most common cause of death in Cherokee Nation,” a CN Health Services preliminary report notes. “Cigarette smoking, obesity, poor nutrition and a lack of physical activity are all contributors to this disease.”

There were a reported 2,301 Native American deaths within the CN related to heart disease from 2011-15.

“The financial burden on our health system is tremendous,” the report states. “Approximately 40 percent (45,000) of our patients suffer from heart disease. The cost of medications alone exceeded $1.5 million in 2017.”

That same year, contract health costs related to heart disease exceeded $7 million, the report points out. The report also compared Native Americans in the CN to non-Native Oklahomans and the U.S. general population.

“You can see the disparity there,” CN Public Health Medical Director Dr. David Gahn told Tribal Councilors on April 25. “In Cherokee Nation, 53 percent of people who die from heart disease are less than 75 years old compared to 40 percent of non-Native Oklahomans and in the U.S. general population, 34 percent. If you take all the people in Cherokee Nation who died of heart disease who were less than 75, two-thirds were men.”

Risk factors of heart disease include cigarette smoking and obesity. Figures presented in the report indicate that 40 percent of the CN’s adults and 22 percent of high school-aged teenagers are obese.

Also, more than a third of the adults have high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol.

“About 25 percent of Native American adults in Cherokee Nation smoke cigarettes,” the study states. “About 25 percent of Native American high school kids currently use some form of tobacco.”

To combat what health leaders call the “largely preventable” problem, the CN focuses on nutrition, physical activity and tobacco cessation.

“Increasing access to healthy and fresh food in communities is a big piece of what we do,” CN Public Health Senior Director Lisa Pivec said.

Nutrition initiatives include school gardens, a diabetes prevention and nutrition curriculum provided to 30 schools, and policies to improve school lunches, among others.

To help boost physical activity, the CN offers summer outreach camps, 26 certified road race/walking events per year, traditional Cherokee game events and implemented Safe Routes to School programs in five cities.

Addressing tobacco use, the CN offers smoking cessation classes, organized Students Working Against Tobacco teams in 40 schools and produces anti-tobacco mass media campaigns.

Gahn said a finalized heart disease report would soon be publicly available.

“We’re adding a few more things,” he said. “The University of Oklahoma College of Public Health has been our partner in developing this report, so they’re helping us finalize it. We’ll send that out to our health partners and make it publicly available in the next month or two.”
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