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Life expectancy lowest, and falling fastest, for American Indian and Alaska Natives

A sagebrush-covered and snowy landscape on the Wind River Reservation
Angela Burgess
/
USFWS
The Wind River Reservation

News brief

Early estimates show that COVID-19 was still a major factor driving down the life expectancy of U.S. newborns last year – it declined from 77 in 2020 to about 76.

However, the CDC analysis also shows that since the pandemic began, life expectancy decreased much more — and much faster — for American Indians and Alaskan Natives.

That group’s life expectancy declined 6.6 years between 2019 and 2021, ending at 65.2.

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Spiro M. Manson says there’s still a lot of hope for those numbers to rebound, though. Manson directs the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at the University of Colorado.

“A New England Journal of Medicine article pointed out … that the rates of vaccination among American Indian and Alaska Native people were the highest for any segment of U.S. society,” said Manson, who is also Pembina Chippewa from the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.

Beyond vaccinations, Manson said AIAN communities and health professionals can now get back on track with addressing illnesses like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

While the pandemic was a setback, he said they had made enormous strides before and he expects they will continue that work.

“I have every reason to believe, as we advance now to ‘normal 2.0’...that we can turn once again to addressing these chronic, extremely debilitating conditions that are so widespread across tribal communities,” he said.

Manson explained that chronic health conditions, lack of access to medical care/infrastructure and economic challenges in tribal communities are some of the reasons the pandemic was so deadly.

However, he noted that not all tribes felt that pain equally.

“These rates of lowered life expectancy vary enormously by region, and they vary enormously by tribes. From the lowest rates of current life expectancy in the northern plains to the much higher life expectancy in the southwest,” he said.

Manson added that they’ve come a long way since the early 70s, when “the average life expectancy of an American Indian male, for example, was 47.5 years of age.”

The latest CDC life expectancy estimates are from 2021, before significant federal funding had much time to bolster infrastructure and access to energy, clean water and internet services around tribal communities.

“There’s no doubt of the value that [telehealth] services provide. They provide much more immediate access to specialty and tertiary care that is not available in these isolated and rural communities,” Manson said.

Manson is confident that tribal communities will overcome the health adversities they're facing "by capitalizing on the best that the biomedical world has to offer us as well as the best that our own traditional healing ceremonies and practices have to offer."

Beyond COVID-19, another major reason for falling life expectancies across all racial groups last year was “unintentional injury deaths,” which the National Center for Health Statistics said was largely driven by drug overdoses. About 107,000 people died last year from overdoses as the deadly drug fentanyl continues to traverse the U.S.

Many blame the pandemic and isolation’s effects on mental health for exacerbating the growing overdose epidemic.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.