Health Advice



Native Americans have experienced a dramatic decline in life expectancy during the COVID-19 pandemic – but the drop has been in the making for generations

Allison Kelliher, Assistant Professor, Department of Family & Community Medicine, University of North Dakota, The Conversation on

Published in Health & Fitness

Six and one-half years.

That’s the decline in life expectancy that the COVID-19 pandemic wrought upon American Indians and Alaska Natives, based on an August 2022 report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

This astounding figure translates to an overall drop in average living years from 71.8 years in 2019 to 65.2 by the end of 2021.

Although the pandemic is a major reason for this decline, it’s not the whole story. Even before COVID-19 emerged, life expectancy for Indigenous men was already five years lower than for non-Hispanic white men in the United States.

As a Native American physician and board-certified M.D., I am all too familiar with the health challenges that Indigenous Americans face.

Growing up in remote rural Alaska as a member of the Koyukon Athabascan tribe, I heard stories of how infectious diseases like flu, smallpox and tuberculosis threatened our survival. My cultural group descends from three families that survived the 1918 flu pandemic.


This history inspired me to become a traditional healer. Along with my training in Western medicine, I have also studied plant-based medicine and earth-based science, which was taught to me by my elders – practitioners who passed down thousands of years of accumulated knowledge to me.

Through both my medical and traditional practices, I have learned there are many reasons for the decline in life expectancy and the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous health outcomes. But this gap – if the government and the medical system will act – can be narrowed.

American Indians and Alaska Natives die from diabetes at more than twice the rate of non-Indigenous populations. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Native Americans have significantly higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, cancers and general poor health status than other Americans. The suicide rate in Indigenous communities is about 43% higher than that of non-Indigenous communities. And Native American women experience sexual violence far more often than non-Hispanic white women.

There are many reasons for these disparities. For starters: Native Americans have the highest poverty rate among all minority groups, perhaps as high as 25%.


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