By Yereth Rosen
Alaska Beacon 

Rural Alaska Natives have nation's highest death rates for suicide, domestic violence


August 9, 2023 | View PDF

Alaska Natives in certain rural areas of the state have the nation’s highest death rates from suicide and domestic violence and some of the highest rates of accidental deaths, while Asians and Latinos in the state have some of the nation’s lowest rates for deaths from a wide variety of conditions like heart disease and respiratory disorders, according to a new study.

The study, published Thursday, Aug. 3, in The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest medical journals, is a sweeping review of health disparities across the nation, as shown in various ethnic groups’ death rates at the county or regional level between 2000 and 2019.

Alaska Natives in the Kusilvak Census Area, a mostly Yup’ik region in Western Alaska, had the nation’s highest rate of deaths from intentional self-harm and interpersonal violence during the period at 158.9 per 100,000 people. Also among the nation’s highest rates for such deaths are Alaska Natives in the Denali Borough and Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, which were grouped together; the Nome Census Area; Northwest Arctic Borough; and Bethel Census Area, with death rates ranging from 126 to 97.1 per 100,000.

Alaska Natives in the Kusilvak Census Area also had the nation’s second-highest rate of accidental deaths, at 84 per 100,000, according to the study. Alaska Natives in the Denali Borough and Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Nome Census area and the City and Borough of Sitka were among the groups with the 10 highest rates of accidental death, according to the study.

Additionally, Alaska Natives in Sitka and Juneau had among the nation’s highest death rates from musculoskeletal disorders, the study found.

Health disparities between Alaska Natives and non-Natives, including high rates of suicide among Alaska Native youth, have been well-documented by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the state Department of Health and other organizations.

In contrast, Asians and Latinos in coastal areas, particularly in the Aleutians East Borough and Aleutians West Census Area, had the nation’s lowest or near-lowest rates of death from a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular diseases, digestive diseases, neurological disorders, musculoskeletal disorders and chronic respiratory diseases.

Also posting very low death rates for certain chronic conditions – chronic respiratory diseases, digestive diseases, neurological diseases — were Asians living in Southeast Alaska, including the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Petersburg and Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area and Wrangell, the study found.

Some coastal areas of Alaska have relatively high numbers of Asian and Hispanic residents. In the Aleutians East Borough, for example, the population is 46.4% Asian and 17.4% Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nationally, one of the study’s most striking findings is that Black women and newborns have extremely high rates of death during pregnancy or childbirth.

The top 10 maternal and neonatal mortality rates were found among Black women in counties in the U.S. South and Midwest. The highest maternal mortality rate, 14.8 per 100,000, was among Black women in Champaign County, Illinois, while the lowest maternal and neonatal mortality rate, 1.2 per 100,000, was among white women in Arlington County, Virginia, according to the findings. The national maternal and neonatal death rate for Black women and their infants was 8.9 per 100,000 over the study period.

Another national pattern was higher death rates from various causes for Indigenous populations.

The results are evidence of inequities that affect people’s health, the author said in a statement.

“The consistency of these patterns strongly suggests shared root causes and highlights the widespread, perpetual, and negative impact of systemic racism on health,” study author Dr. Laura Dwyer-Lindgren, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said in the statement.

In an email, Dwyer-Lindgren said lower mortality rates among Asians and Latinos in various parts of the nation, including Alaska, likely stems from the characteristics of those who migrate to the U.S., “people who are able to migrate are likely healthier, on average,” she said.

“Part of this may also be differences in key risks that are especially pertinent for many chronic diseases – for example, some immigrants to the US are from countries where smoking is less prevalent, and these individuals may be less likely to smoke themselves, which substantially reduces their risk of developing or dying from many chronic conditions.”

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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