Indigenous people are at much higher risk for diabetes

When it comes to getting Type 2 diabetes, the risk for Indigenous people is as high as 80 per cent in their lifetime.

That’s significantly higher than other populations, where the lifetime risk is pegged at roughly 50 per cent.

Those figures are part of the research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The longitudinal study examined the health records of Albertans over a 20-year period.

“The numbers are shocking. It is a huge public health issue,” says Klara Lorinczi, a Registered Dietitian at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital.

Klara attributes the high rate of diabetes among Indigenous peoples to several contributing factors including colonization, economic hardships, and heredity and lifestyle habits. “Food security and affordability are big factors. In some communities, Indigenous people have limited access to fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains.” 

Major findings of the diabetes study:

  • Eight in 10 Indigenous Canadians are projected to develop diabetes over their lifetime.

  • Five in 10 non-Indigenous Canadians will develop diabetes over their lifetime.

  • Rural Indigenous people had a higher risk of lifetime Type 2 diabetes than urban Indigenous people.

  • Women had a higher lifetime risk than men in the Indigenous group.

  • Men had a higher lifetime risk of diabetes than women in similar age groups in the non-Indigenous group.

Source: Canadian Medical Association Journal

Marlene Collins, a Liaison with Covenant Health, says affordability of food is an issue that results in poor choices. “Too often people can’t afford healthy food, so they buy whatever is reasonably priced that they can find at a grocery store. For a lot of them, the issue is eating proper food and being able to afford healthy food.”

Marlene says there is already a high level of awareness about diabetes among Indigenous groups she works with around the Bonnyville area, including the Kehewin Cree Nation, Frog Lake First Nation, and Cold Lake First Nations.

“There are many federally funded programs offered to members. There are classes being offered like foot care, diet classes, cooking classes, youth chef, and a few others.” She says there are also health centres and experts—a registered dietitian, dentist, optometrist and a doctor—who do consultations, and home visits, and teach classes.

Tips on avoiding diabetes

While the road to healthy eating and lifestyle can be hard, Marlene says diabetes prevention and care also require buy-in from people. 

Meanwhile, Klara sees the value of a team-based, grassroots approach. “To achieve real and lasting change, a team approach is always better with the elders, nurses, registered dietitians and other key people in the community.”

To lower the lifetime chances of getting diabetes, Klara says it is important for people to watch what they eat and to stay active.

“Weight management is key. Drinking water when thirsty, eating whole grains and filling half your plate with vegetables are just a few quick tips.” Eating fruits and vegetables, she says, crowds out some of the less healthy food and provides fibre, which can reduce blood sugars and help a person feel fuller.

This huge public health issue touches the lives of almost every Indigenous family, and that’s why Klara sees all of us having a collective responsibility to help stem the rise of diabetes across Canada.

“Whether it is modelling healthy eating to kids or doing early screening for pregnant moms, there many things we can do to reduce the incidence of diabetes.”

Klara says people at the prediabetes stage, have up to a 70 per cent chance of avoiding it - if they make healthy lifestyle changes.

“You don’t get a pre-cancer or pre-anything type of diagnosis other than diabetes. And when caught early enough, with lifestyle changes it can be preventable.”

The Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) reports that the long-term consequences of uncontrolled diabetes include vision loss, kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes and heart failure, and being hospitalized for amputations.

The CDA estimates that 11 million Canadians live with diabetes or prediabetes in 2019 with costs to the nation’s healthcare system soaring from $14 billion in 2008 to an estimated $30 billion this year alone.  

Tips on managing diabetes

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