Six Nations people face higher rates of chronic illnesses

Why are Six Nations people facing more chronic illnesses than surrounding communities?

That’s one of the questions a local epidemiologist is hoping to answer when a large-scale community health survey gets underway on Six Nations in 2023.

Sara Smith, a Six Nations epidemiologist, shared some startling statistics with Six Nations of the Grand River Elected Council last week that highlighted glaring disparities in health outcomes for Six Nations people compared to the general Canadian population.

For starters, about 33 per cent of the general Canadian population has two or more chronic health conditions.

For Six Nations people, that number jumps to 54 per cent.

“We have a much higher prevalence of multi-morbidities,” Smith told elected council.

Statistics from 2009 to 2018 showed arthritis was the most prevalent chronic condition among Six Nations people, with 34 per cent of adults experiencing it, followed by high blood pressure (27 per cent), diabetes (22 per cent), heart disease (seven per cent) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (six per cent) rounding out the top five.

COPD is a any condition that affects the functioning of the lungs such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

Thirty-four per cent of Six Nations people have three or more chronic conditions, and 20 per cent have four or more.

What’s more, Six Nations people experience higher rates of infectious disease than surrounding communities, council heard.

That includes infectious diseases from contaminated water and food (such as e.coli, botulism, and cholera, to name a few), as well as sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections.

Smith aims to undertake a community health survey to find out the root causes behind these statistics to tailor proper programs and services for Six Nations people.

“We have questions that need answers,” said Smith.

What diseases impact the community the most?

What behaviours lead to these health outcomes?

“It’s important we have data on all of those aspects.”

When it comes to cancer on Six Nations, skin cancer was the most common type of cancer diagnosed among community members from 2009 to 2018, followed by the female reproductive system, breast cancer, the digestive system, and the respiratory system.

One particular part of the study to note was that there was an increase in renal (kidney) disease among community members in 2017.

Nobody knows why.

Another jarring statistic was that older adults are more likely to die by suicide than younger people and suicide rates for those 65 and older on Six Nations have been on the rise since 2012.

Despite suicide being seen as an issue that mostly affects younger people, “Older adults are also at risk for suicide,” said Smith.

Overdoses are also increasing as are rates of mental health disorders and substance use disorders in young people ages 18 to 25, Smith noted.

The most notable health conditions that are on the rise, according to the statistics presented by Smith, were water and food borne illness, sexually transmitted and blood borne infections, vaccine preventable diseases, and COPD.

Diabetes rates have remained stable.

The big question was why is Six Nations experiencing these health outcomes?

Some factors, said Smith, could include things like education levels, housing conditions, etc. and those factors then can affect a person’s health behaviours, such as eating healthfully, and exercising regularly.

“All of those things impact health outcomes,” said Smith. “That sort of information – health behaviours, education, etc will fill in much needed data gaps and that information can only come from community members who answer the questions and participate in the community health survey.”

The survey will hopefully identify the health and wellness needs of the community.

The survey will be launched sometime in 2023.

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