Although heart disease prevalence has been declining in the U.S., rates are almost twice as high among American Indians (AIs) as that of the general population, according to the Strong Heart Study, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The study began in 1988 and includes more than 7,600 participants from 13 tribes and communities, making it the largest and longest epidemiologic investigation to examine heart disease and its risk factors among AIs. The NHLBI compares this study to the landmark Framingham Heart Study in scope and impact.
The Strong Heart Study also found, for the first time, that diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease in AIs. One study research team found AI adults who ate canned meats twice a week had double the diabetes risk of those who ate canned meat only twice a month. “Many American Indians live on rural reservations, where it is difficult to get access to fresh, healthful foods,” noted Amanda Fretts, PhD, MPH, an AI epidemiologist and lead investigator.
Everett Rhoades, MD, a former director of the IHS and a member of the Kiowa Nation of Oklahoma, said the study is helping empower the AI community to take charge of its own health. For instance, the study has trained and employed dozens of AI investigators for its active research team. Moreover, the education efforts are paying off. Francine Red Willow, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who interviewed for the NHLBI fact sheet, said, “This study helped me quit smoking, increased my exercise levels, and raised my awareness about the importance of monitoring my cholesterol levels.”