UO anthropologist: Health of northern natives face climate, economic risks

EUGENE, Ore. — (Aug. 22, 2013) — A comprehensive review of 126 published research papers on health conditions of native populations in far-northern climates by University of Oregon anthropologist J. Josh Snodgrass captures the present and raises warning flags for the future.

Native populations shown on an Arctic Ocean relief mapThe invited review — online in advance of publication in November's Annual Review of Anthropology — drew primarily from epidemiological studies of indigenous populations, including eight of Snodgrass' own papers focusing on Siberia. Two key messages emerged:

• Of approximately 10 million natives who live in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, the Sami of Scandinavia are the healthiest, but their indigenous neighbors across northern Russia show "extremely poor health indicators and marked disparities compared with Russia as a whole."

• Most of the indigenous populations in the five geographically defined regions — Alaska in the United States, northern Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden and Finland) and northern Russia — now, however, face growing health risks particularly in the face of expanding economic development involving natural resources and a rapidly warming climate.

Josh Snodgrass in his lab"I had originally planned to make the paper more anthropological to provide a bio-cultural perspective, but I ended up emphasizing the epidemiological data since there really hadn't been an accessible and systematic review of disease patterns across native circumpolar populations," Snodgrass said. "It's truly amazing how little attention has been focused on the big picture of health among native Arctic populations."

AUDIO: Snodgrass provides the take-home message

Snodgrass noted extensive research on suicide and drug use, "but little that puts all the pieces together." The burden of disease risks in these areas, he said, differs from anywhere else on the planet, especially given moderately high levels of infectious and parasitic diseases, mental health issues and substance abuse problems coupled with the growing prevalence of chronic disease.

Indigenous populations covered in his review were: the Inuit and Aleut in Alaska; Inuit and Dene in northern Canada; the Inuit in Greenland; the Sami in Scandinavia; and the Evenki, Khanti, Mansi and Yakut in northern Russia. Many of these, he said, are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of global climate change and their risks will only accelerate by rapid and intense economic development, much of it centered on the extraction of resources, including oil and minerals.

"Regional wealth does not necessarily translate into health benefits for all," Snodgrass wrote. In addition, he wrote, already occurring climate warming, including melting glaciers and sea ice and decreased permafrost, will only be compounded if the projected rise of the mean annual temperature — ranging from 3 to 7 degrees Celsius (5 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit) — by the end of the century becomes a reality.

While Snodgrass cited numerous studies, he was most inspired by a 2012 paper, "Global Health — A Circumpolar Perspective," in the American Journal of Public Health by Susan Chatwood of the University of Toronto and the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research, also in Canada. "My review expands on that paper and takes it in a couple of different directions," Snodgrass said.

In a summary graphic, Snodgrass laid out the populations by regions and identified their overall health and health-related challenges, including mental health, and their susceptibility to cancers, obesity and hypertension.

With the exception of Scandinavia's Sami population whose largest risk involves dietary change, Snodgrass noted, indigenous populations are at risk because of low activity levels, extensive tobacco use, psychosocial stresses, pollution, poor living conditions and climate change. In addition, populations in Alaska and northern Russia show high rates of alcoholism. Northern Russian populations also bear a predisposition to high blood pressure in adaptive patterns triggered by political changes after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"Cultural and individual factors often interact with underlying genetic susceptibility within the context of a particular environment to structure health risk," Snodgrass wrote. The paper, he said, "emphasizes the need to consider regional adaptive patterns when investigating global health variation and underscores the importance of developing innovative models to understand disease patterns that integrate environmental exposure with underlying differences in susceptibility."

About the University of Oregon
The University of Oregon is among the 108 institutions chosen from 4,633 U.S. universities for top-tier designation of "Very High Research Activity" in the 2010 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The UO also is one of two Pacific Northwest members of the Association of American Universities.

Media Contact: Jim Barlow, director of science and research communications, 541-346-3481, jebarlow@uoregon.edu

Source: J. Josh Snodgrass, associate professor of anthropology, 541-346-4823, jjosh@uoregon.edu

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