Study aims to reduce health risks in Arizona’s tribal youth

Eating high-fat, processed foods and fewer fruits and vegetables, and spending hours a day on digital games instead of physical exercise, are high-risk behaviors known to increase the chance of developing diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other chronic health conditions.

Francine C. Gachupin, PhD, MPH, CIP, assistant director of the UA Cancer Center’s Cancer Health Disparities Institute and assistant director of the UA College of Medicine’s Family and Community Medicine’s Native American Research and Training Center, is leading a new study, funded by the American Cancer Society, to gain a better understanding of how prevalent these unhealthy trends are among American Indian youth in Arizona – the first step to reversing the trends.

Gachupin is analyzing tribal teens’ anonymous responses to “youth risk behavior” surveys conducted every two years by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in collaboration with tribal health departments, the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“The critical thing is that we need children and youth to be healthy while they are young,” Dr. Gachupin says. “If they develop these high-risk habits and they become obese or develop diabetes early in life, you can imagine the quality of life they will have as adults.

“That’s what motivates me. And I think it’s imperative that we make inroads now into preventing these chronic diseases.”

Dr. Gachupin, an epidemiologist widely respected for her public health research, joined the UA in October 2012. A member of New Mexico’s Jemez Pueblo, Dr. Gachupin has previously researched the risk behaviors of New Mexico’s American Indian youth.

In addition to diet and exercise habits, the CDC surveys ask about other high-risk behaviors: driving without a seatbelt; unsafe sex, which leads to unintended pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections; alcohol and other drug use; tobacco use; and so on.

Youth who participate in the surveys are asked to identify their race, but not their tribes or their schools. But data are still useful to schools with high percentages of American Indian students, Dr. Gachupin says.

- Jane Erikson, Jan. 15, 2014