Sioux County, headquarters of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, which covers about 1 million acres in North and South Dakota, has the highest rate of premature deaths in the nation, researchers at the University of Wisconsin found. The county loses almost 24 years of potential life per 100 residents, compared to less than 3 years lost per 100 in Los Alamos, home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Eight of the 10 least-healthy counties are home to large populations of Native Americans in the Dakotas, Alaska and Montana, according to the U.S. Census. Counties with the highest rates of premature death tend to have high poverty rates, poor education systems and low levels of economic development, said Patrick Remington, a professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who compiled the data.
“We almost have a blind spot to the fact that we have counties, that represent all or part of Indian nations, that are some of the least healthy places certainly in each state and nationwide,” Remington said in an interview. “To me, that should be sort of a national disgrace.”
Rounding out the 10 least healthy counties are McDowell County in West Virginia, where median income is $22,154 a year, and Union County in Florida, home to a large prison. Poverty is strongly associated with poor health and shorter lifespans, Remington said.
Los Alamos Income
Only 2.4 percent of families in Los Alamos live in poverty, and median household income is about $104,000, according to the census. Los Alamos County had the lowest rate of premature death followed by Douglas County, Colorado, a Denver suburb, and Leelanau County in northern Michigan.
Native Americans on reservations are in poor health because of “a whole host of reasons,” said Donna Galbreath, a member of the Ahtna Athabascan tribe who is a family physician at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage and president of the Association of American Indian Physicians.
“It comes from marginalization early on, it comes from substance abuse, it comes from lack of health care and underfunded health care,” she said by phone.
She spoke from a conference of the National Indian Gaming Association in San Diego, where she said she’d been invited to make a presentation on diabetes in Native American populations.
“This is like a first,” she said. “Gaming isn’t health. But Indian people are saying we need to do something.”
Remington’s work is co-sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit group in Princeton, New Jersey, that studies health issues. The annual survey is the third produced by the foundation and the University of Wisconsin.
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