While obesity has become a crisis in mainstream America, it has become a devastating epidemic among Native American children. According to the Indian Health Service, 81% of Native adults are obese and 45% of 2-5 year olds are obese. In many Native communities, childhood obesity rates exceed 50% (60% in some communities). As a result, Native American children are prime candidates for shortened, unfulfilled lives spent fighting health problems and illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes. While childhood obesity is reportedly beginning to decline in upwards to 18 states, the rates are actually increasing for Native American children.
In fact, obesity is the leading contributing factor to type 2 diabetes, and it is estimated that one out of two Native American children will develop diabetes in their lifetime. Type 2 diabetes may reduce a child’s life expectancy by 27 years. The death rate of Native Americans with diabetes is 3 times higher than the general U.S. population.
The social determinants of health* in Native American communities – set in food deserts, suffering a dearth of physical activity opportunities, and often experiencing crushing poverty – means that most Native communities are particularly in need of infrastructure, technical and financial support to bolster their community’s culturally appropriate solutions and prevention programs.
Researchers agree that based on current trends, this may be the first generation of Native American children to not outlive their parents. Native American children are destined to live short, unhealthy lives unless present circumstances change.
The costs of obesity are substantial. Obesity accounted for $147 billion in health care costs in 2008, and that number is rising. Medicare and Medicaid incurred 42 percent of these costs. Costs for American Indians with diabetes consume a significant proportion of IHS budget, currently at $4.4 billion. IHS treatment costs for the 10.9 percent of American Indian adults with diabetes accounted for 37 percent of all adult treatment costs. Persons with diabetes accounted for nearly half of all hospital days (excluding days for obstetrical care). Hospital inpatient service costs for those with diabetes accounted for 32.2 percent of all costs.
Changing the health future for Native American children requires investing in long-term preventative strategies that are driving today’s high rates of diabetes and obesity. If we don’t act now, it is predicted that fifty percent of Native children will develop diabetes in their lifetime. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
*The social determinants of health (SDH) are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life. These forces and systems include economic policies and systems, development agendas, social norms, social policies and political systems.