PIERRE - A study that found American Indians living in southwestern South Dakota have the nation's lowest life expectancy shows the need to continue efforts to improve health care on reservations, health officials said Monday.
The national research study, led by Dr. Christopher Murray of the Harvard School of Public Health, reported that six counties that include Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Rosebud Indian Reservation have the lowest life expectancy in the nation.
People in that area can expect to live 66.6 years, well short of the 79 years for low-income rural white people in the Northern Plains.
South Dakota ranked 18th in the study with an average life expectancy of 77.7 years.
Jacqueline Left Hand Bull, administrative officer of the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairmen's Health Board, said she is not surprised by the study's findings. American Indians in South Dakota have high rates of infant mortality, cancer, diabetes and heart disease, and many live far from hospitals and clinics, she said.
"The American Indian population has long had the lowest life-expectancy rate in the country, and to find out the lowest of the low is right here in South Dakota is not a surprise," Left Hand Bull said.
The Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairmen's Health Board works with the Indian Health Service to improve health care for Indians in the area. The national study underscores the board's long-held position that more services are needed and that access to health care must be improved, Left Hand Bull said.
"We know the Indian Health Service is doing the best it can with the funding it receives, but it needs more funding," she said.
IHS reports show American Indians in the Aberdeen region have a death rate more than double the national average. Indians in the area particularly exceeded the national average in infant mortality and deaths from accident, liver disease and problems related to diabetes.
The counties listed as having the lowest life expectancy also consistently rank among the nation's poorest counties, with low annual incomes.
"Alcoholism is one factor that has plagued American Indians … possibly because of a lack of being able to live the American dream," said Ray Grandbois of the IHS. That alcoholism can result from depression caused by high unemployment and an inability to provide for a family, he said.
A recent state Health Department study also found that 53 percent of Indians reported smoking, compared with only 21 percent of white people in South Dakota.
Sarah Patrick, a professor and director of the Center for Rural Health Improvement at the University of South Dakota medical school, noted that the IHS and tribal officials have established a commission that is looking at the most effective ways to provide health care in Indian communities.
Patrick also said the national study can help officials improve health care for Indians.
"I think studies like this are important because they can give us benchmarks. And the important thing is to get together as a community and decide what is it we need to work on, what is it that makes the most sense right here to work on," Patrick said. "I still think we can look at it with some hope in terms of being able to measure improvement over time."
The national study found the nation's lowest life expectancy in Bennett, Jackson, Mellette, Shannon, Todd and Washabaugh counties. Washabaugh County, which has been absorbed into another county, includes the part of the Pine Ridge reservation outside Shannon County.