we face a silent, subtle enemy that has the ability to slip through
our defenses and kill us slowly from within. The name of this killer
is cardiovascular disease (CVD) or more commonly, heart disease.
CVD includes a long list of specific diseases that not only affect
the heart, but also veins, arteries, and blood. In any given year,
27 percent of deaths among Indian women and 25 percent among Indian
men are direct results of CVD. As the mortality rate for CVD has
declined in the past three decades by more than 50 percent in the
general population of the United States, it has risen dramatically
among Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
answer to how and why CVD has become so widespread in our communities
lies partially in how our way of life has been changing over the
past decades. The key to reversing the growth of CVD among Indian
people may very well lie in returning to our traditional paths of
better health. This said, we must recognize that there are physical
factors such as the natural effects of aging and genetic or familial
weaknesses that cannot be controlled. At the same time, however,
there is still much that we can do to improve our chances of living
well with strong hearts.
While the general population in America is choosing to butt-out
their cigarettes, Indian people are taking up the habit at increased
rates that look suspiciously like the rates for CVD. A full 40 percent
of our people smoke. It is no coincidence that the risk of heart
attack is two times greater in smokers, and the risk of death from
heart attack is four times greater. Even if you don't smoke yourself,
exposure to secondhand smoke from friends and family increases your
heart disease risk almost as much as that of smokers.
cigarettes is not part of our traditions. Taking smoke into our
lungs and bodies is the opposite of taking ceremonial smoke into
our mouths and then sending it skyward with our prayers. The first
thing we can do to reverse CVD is to abandon this predominant culture
habit and return to our own healthy and spiritual ways of using
the gift of tobacco.
Alcohol was introduced by European traders and explorers as part
of their quest for land, goods, and services. Because the effects
of alcohol vaguely resembled the effects of some herbs and plants
used as medicine and in spiritual ceremony, Indian people came to
regard it as mysterious or holy. In the Lakota language, alcohol
is known as Mni Wakan, or "sacred water." But, as we now
know, there is nothing sacred in this substance. Alcohol is not
part of our traditions.
addition to the many diseases and suffering moderate to heavy drinking
causes, it can also result in high blood pressure, which, in turn,
increases the risk of stroke and heart attack. Reducing alcohol
consumption or eliminating it altogether is an essential act of
sovereignty, of taking back what belongs to us. Nothing more needs
to be said in this regard.
Hamburgers, French fries, pizza, candy bars, cakes, pies, sugary
soda, and potato chips were never part of our traditional diets.
Even fry bread, a food that has taken on the status of tradition,
originates with the predominant society's system of rationing flour
and lard one hundred years ago. But wherever you go on the Rez or
in the city, you will find these foods more readily available than
fresh fruit and vegetables. The high fat content and the sugar in
these foods contribute directly to obesity, high cholesterol, high
blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, all major risk factors for
traditional foods, like bison, venison, fish, beans, squash and
corn, tuberous vegetables, berries, and wild rice are low in fat,
high in fiber, and contain elements that actually promote high density
lipoproteins (HDL) or good cholesterol. HDLs help remove the LDLs
that clog the arteries and reduce the body's blood flow.. The nutritional
key to strong hearts may very well lie in rediscovering traditional
cuisine. The old recipes are still cherished within the hearts and
minds of the Elders. All we need to do is ask them. Who knows, with
the increased focus on heart health that is sweeping the general
population in America, we might open up a new source of wealth in
restaurants featuring American Indian cuisine.
Perhaps our greatest single enemy in the war on CVD is the television
set, the boob tube, the one-eyed babysitter. It is so much easier
to plant ourselves and our children in front of the TV than to actively
engage our bodies and minds in exercise and motion. The TV set and
the values it promotes are not part of our traditions. Walking,
working, dancing, playing, and just being in close relationship
with Mother Earth and each other are what we were born to do.
way, then, to combat CVD is to replace many of the hours spent sitting
in front of the TV with exercise and physical activity. Exercise
doesn't need to involve expensive equipment or designer shoes and
clothes. It can be as simple as taking an evening walk with a friend,
getting the family out to the local park or school gym to throw
a few hoops, or kick a ball around, or attending a local PowWow
or wacipi and dancing up a storm. So long as you get your heart
working hard for 30 minutes at least three times a week, you are
significantly lowering your risk of CVD as well as other diseases
like diabetes and cancer.
Healthy Heart Checkups
Finally, for those risk factors like aging and genetics that are
out of our control, our best weapon is a comprehensive healthy heart
checkup as part of our regular physical examination. A general healthy
heart checkup includes:
blood test that measures the amounts of HDL (good) and LDL (bad)
of blood pressure and pulse
of the heart and lungs with a stethoscope
is heartening to know that the enemy of CVD can be beaten back with
common sense solutions that involve little to no expense. But what
is good to keep before us is that the answer to maintaining healthy
hearts has always been at our fingertips and is rooted in our traditions.
Strong hearts are part of who we are, who we have always been, and
who we will be.
are some resources for more information on keeping yourself and
your family heart healthy.
Well-Integrated Screening and Evaluation for Women Across the Nation,
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center
for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
4770 Buford Highway, N.E., K-26
Atlanta, GA 30341-3724
Fax for free publications: 1-888 -232-4674
Your Heart, The National Women's Health Information Center
Telephone: 1-800-994-9662 (toll free)
Your Path to Health is a national public health education campaign
sponsored by the Office on Women's Health within the U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services. For more information about the campaign,
please call 1-800-994-WOMAN or 1-888-220-5446 (TDD), or visit the
National Women's Health Information Center at http://www.4woman.gov.
To request weekly health tips by e-mail, click on the box that says,
"Click Here for weekly health tips by e-mail."