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Study To Examine How Social, Economic Stressors Affect Aboriginal Health

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The severe social and economic adversity faced by Aboriginal peoples may affect their biological health. In a first-of-its-kind study, University of Lethbridge researchers will examine the relationship between unrelenting stress and health among Canada’s indigenous peoples.

This new study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, will be co-lead by three researchers at the University of Lethbridge in the fields of health sciences, kinesiology and neuroscience. The study will commence October 2013 with results expected in 2016-17.

“Aboriginal populations experience high levels of chronic stress as they are often marginalized both socially and economically in Canada. We know that over time, high unrelenting stress can have a profound influence on biological systems,” says study co-lead Dr. Cheryl Currie, who is a public health researcher at the University.

Stressful experiences are an inevitable part of life, but repeated and chronic exposure to uncontrollable stressors can disrupt the function of neuroendocrine, cardiovascular and immune systems. Markers of biological disruption can be identified well before the clinical markers of disease are detected.

“We tend to think about social and biological determinants of health separately. Connecting the two is a more comprehensive way to think about health—and may shed new light on why Aboriginal populations are disproportionately affected by chronic disease,” said study co-lead Dr. Jennifer Copeland, a kinesiology researcher at the University.

The study will also build on Dr. Currie’s past research, which indicates that Aboriginal cultural practices promote resilience against alcohol and drug abuse within Aboriginal populations. In this new study, the team will examine the extent to which Aboriginal cultural practices may promote biologic resilience and improve health. Further, the study will examine the ways in which western approaches to wellness, such as regular physical activity, may also promote resiliency in these populations.

Dr. Gerlinde Metz, a neuroscientist at the University’s Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience and co-lead on the study says understanding the biological effects of adverse social conditions is an important step towards the development of interventions that can improve population health and wellness. “Information gained from the study will be used to help identify new strategies that can reduce health disparities experienced by Aboriginal populations,” says Dr. Metz.

The full research team includes Drs. Judith Kulig, Michelle Hogue, and Olu Awosoga from the University of Lethbridge, and Dr. David Olsen from the University of Alberta. Working together with the Aboriginal community in southern Alberta, this cross-disciplinary team will examine how a range of factors—including adverse childhood experiences, poverty, unemployment, single parenthood, living in overcrowded housing and racial discrimination—impact the stress response and biological functioning among Aboriginal adults living in the Lethbridge area.

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