Policy and Social Factors Influencing Diabetes among Pima Indians in Arizona, USA

Clayton Booth, Maziar M. Nourian, Shannon Weaver, Bethany Gull, Akiko Kamimura


The Pima Indians have the highest rate of type 2 diabetes in the world. While biomedical studies have identified a genetic variable associated with the high prevalence of diabetes among Pima Indians, genetics is only one factor that encompasses an individual’s risk for developing a disease. Information on the social factors relating to the development of type 2 diabetes amongst this population is necessary. The purpose of this analysis is to review policy, social and historical factors associated with diabetes among Pima Indians. Governmental policies have affected this population’s ability to eat a diet native to their culture. For example, the damming of the Gila River in the early 1920s resulted in diet and lifestyle changes, reducing traditional low fat, high fiber intake and physical activity, among the Pima population. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policies in place in the 1970s and 1980s did not allow Native Americans, the Pima included, to get farm help such as agricultural loans in times of need. These policies led to many Pima finding sedentary jobs, if they could find work at all, and adopting unhealthy lifestyles. While genetic factors have shown to be important predictors of diabetes incidence, the historical and social factors that changed US Pima Indians’ lifestyles are significant factors which have contributed to the high prevalence of diabetes among this group. In order to address the high rates of diabetes among the Pima Indians, it is vital that emphasis be placed upon culturally appropriate interventions. U.S. government agencies, tribal leaders, and community elders would benefit from working together to establish healthier food sources, encourage physical activity, and utilize existing community networks to spread information on diabetes prevention and management practices. Future studies on diabetes among Pima Indians would include more policy, social and historical factors, develop programs with reflection of these factors, and evaluate the programs.

Keywords: Pima Indians, type 2 diabetes, Native American policies, social factors, USA

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