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Navajo Nation promotes diabetes awareness

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - While November is technically National Diabetes Awareness Month, the incredibly high rate of both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes among Navajo peoples means the diabetes awareness activities never stop on the Navajo Nation.

According to the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project, more Dine' people have diabetes than ever before. This includes individuals of all age groups.

''We're into the time where some of our kids are coming out with Type 2. This means kidney ailments, blurred vision, irritability, fatigue, the tips of fingers or toes get numbing sensations,'' Ray Baldwin Louis, NNSDP public information officer, explained.

Navajo youth between the ages of 10 and 19 have the highest rate of increase for Type 2 diabetes in comparison to non-Navajos. Normally, Type 2 diabetes occurs in persons older than 35. However, 2 percent of Navajo youth have Type 2 diabetes.

''The thing is that diabetes is preventable. By eating vegetables, fruits, non-fatty meats, not overeating and exercising, people can prevent it,'' Louis said. ''But it's a chronic disease - once you have it, there's no cure.''

To address youth, NNSDP regularly visits elementary and secondary schools and organizes activities focused on healthy living.

''This month, we're really focusing on the youth, because a lot more of our students are obese,'' Genevieve Davis, NNSDP senior community health worker in Dilkon, said. ''We talk to them about being active, the time they spend watching TV and snacks. We have demonstrations of how to make healthy snacks like peanut butter with bananas and smoothies. We also talk about what they drink and energy drinks.''

Louis agreed that the increased consumption of high-calorie, caffeinated energy drinks are an increasing focus of NNSDP work. However, because of their popularity and availability, this is a difficult battle.

''Our main focus is that we don't try to tell the people what not to eat - we educate them about what foods are high in sugar, high in fat or laced with sugar and fat,'' Louis said.

Dine' individuals between the ages of 20 to 54 are four times more likely to have diabetes than non-Navajos, and more than 40 percent of adult deaths are caused by diabetes complications.

''It has to do with the amount of sugar you have in your blood. Basically, if you're around 154 or below, you're OK,'' Louis said. ''We find some Navajo that are up around 400. They're like walking sugar cubes.''

NNSDP coordinators attribute the high rates of diabetes on the Navajo Nation to a striking change in lifestyle that has swept through the population in the past 50 years.

''It's the laziness of the lifestyle today - with fast food and the consumption of the food that we have available,'' Louis said.

On the Navajo Nation, grocery stores are few and far between, and those that do exist have a limited selection of healthy foods such as fresh produce. It is not uncommon for Dine' people to acquire a large portion of their groceries from convenience stores and gas stations.

''When you have to drive 25 - 30 miles to get to grocery stores, it's easier to just go to the convenience store,'' Louis explained.

Davis said that adult education projects delve into the differences in lifestyles from 50 years ago to now.

''When we're working with the elderlies especially, we talk about the idea of what has changed. Then, to prepare food, they had to do everything - chop wood, walk. ... Now they can open a can of Spam. When we talk about the changes, they really do open up to what we're talking about,'' Davis said.

Currently, NNSDP is working with Johns Hopkins University and Bashas' Supermarkets through the Healthy Stores campaign to line grocery store shelves with special informational cards in Dine' and English alerting buyers to the nutritional value of common foods.

''The idea is to change some of the marketing ideas and make healthy foods available for purchase in stores. We started with the major chain, but hope other stores like the convenience stores will join,'' Louis said.

In addition to healthy eating, NNSDP promotes the incorporation of exercise into individuals' lives.

''We also tell people to go walk with their children in the evening. We say, 'It's good for you and for your kids.' We encourage them to take care of their livestock together. A lot of times adults do their chores alone, but we encourage them to do these chores with their children. Our country is so open that we have a lot of outdoor activities that people can do. If you just eat healthy and exercise with it, you can prevent and control diabetes without having it get the best of you,'' Louis explained.