Youth are also more obese, tribal leaders say; the elderly are living longer but in poor health
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Drugs, suicide and aging populations are among the top health issues regional American Indian groups face.
The problems are hitting opposite ends of the population spectrum, Charles Johnson, an assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said during a tribal consultation meeting in Salt Lake City.
As tribe members live longer, problems such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease are increasing. Younger Indians are encountering problems with methamphetamine, obesity and suicide.
"We're losing our youth," Johnson said, repeating a refrain he hears from many tribe members across the country.
The annual consultation session, which ends today, brought regional tribal leaders into contact with the Indian Health Services along with other federal and state health agencies.
Johnson said top issues include providing long-term care for aging populations, fighting drug and alcohol addiction, preventing suicide and preparing for emergencies.
Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado, said he's worried about his people's youth and elders. Many younger tribe members are not physically active and have problems with obesity and diabetes.
"We see more and more of our kids eating fast food," he said.
Ed Naranjo, vice chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Indian Reservation on the Utah-Nevada border, said diabetes is a growing problem with his people as well.
"It's more prevalent now in our younger people," he said.
Fighting obesity in youth should be a priority, said David Sundwall, director of the Utah Department of Health. As an added bonus, programs for youth tend to raise awareness of weight issues among adults.
Joe Nunez, a regional director for the Department of Health and Human Services, said there are several federal and state agencies available to help address the needs of tribes. In some cases, there are grants and other forms of financial assistance.
Representatives from tribes and government agencies from Utah, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming attended the meeting.