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November is National Diabetes Awareness Month

Image of Margo KerriganMargo Kerrigan, M.P.H., Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office

Diabetes and Heart Disease

Indian people have big hearts. I know this because we love our families, care about our communities, honor our past, and hold the highest hopes for our future. But we have a problem - our hearts are letting us down. Heart disease, also called cardiovascular disease or CVD, is the #1 killer of American Indian and Alaskan Native (AI/AN) people. Twenty-five percent of deaths in our communities are due to heart disease. That's 1 out of every 4 people!

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month and most of you are already aware that diabetes is a major health problem in AI/AN communities. The risk of developing diabetes for AI/AN people is 200 times that of the general population. When an individual has diabetes they are more likely to develop heart disease.

So we have big hearts, but often those hearts are not healthy because of CVD and diabetes. Part of the problem is genetics but part of the problem is how we live our lives. Many of you are already changing your lifestyle to improve your health. For those who need a little push, let's review what you can do.

1. Get an annual checkup at your clinic. We are better at taking our cars in for an annual tune-up than taking care of ourselves. Maybe we're afraid the clinic will find problems. Maybe we're afraid we won't know what to do about it. Just do it. You'll feel better that you are controlling your future and not leaving it to fate.

2. Stop smoking. I'm referring to a daily habit rather than occasional ceremonial tobacco use. Tobacco is extremely damaging to lungs and makes blood vessels brittle. Check with your clinic about tobacco cessation programs.

3. Know the levels of fat (also called lipids) in your blood. Talk to your healthcare provider about this. Check your total cholesterol, LDL or "bad" cholesterol, HDL or "good" cholesterol and triglycerides. Are you at risk because they are too high or too low? Your lifestyle - what you eat and whether you are active - can improve blood lipids. There are also medications you can take.

4. Have your blood pressure checked regularly. Blood pressure is a direct measure of how hard your heart is working. Working harder than it needs to can wear it out. Improving your lifestyle habits and taking medication if needed can improve blood pressure.

5. Be aware of what you weigh. Are you getting rolls around your middle? Too much fat around your waist puts you at risk for diabetes and CVD.

6. If you have diabetes, try to keep your blood sugars as close to normal as possible. Too much sugar in the blood is damaging to the heart as well as all your body organs. Indian clinics have diabetes programs to help support you in taking care of yourself.

7. Be physically active. You know the saying, "Use it or lose it"! Your clinic can give you specific recommendations on an exercise program based on your health status. Many of our California clinics have exercise facilities.

8. Perhaps as important as the recommendations above, have fun and enjoy your life. A happy outlook on life improves your health.

Visit your local Indian health clinic to see what services and programs they have to offer. Indian clinics have dedicated professionals who will treat you like a person and not an illness. You will have a team who can advise you on managing your health conditions, food habits, exercise, stress reduction and more.

Log on to the website for the Strong Heart Study to calculate your risk of developing heart disease. This website is specifically for American Indian people: http://strongheart.ouhsc.edu/CHDcalculator/calculator.html Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov

Gear your mind toward prevention for yourself and for your family. Dont wait until you have a problem to get yourself checked to see if you are at risk of diabetes and/or heart disease. Get motivated during National Diabetes Awareness Month.

We have big hearts. Let's keep our hearts healthy so we can live long, happy and productive lives.

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