First Nations Albertans living shorter lives than everyone else: Alberta Health report

New numbers from Alberta Health show a striking gap in the life expectancy between the general population and First Nations in the province.

Indigenous life expectancy about 12 years less than total provincial population

Life expectancy for First Nations people in the province is two years shorter than two years ago, according to a new Alberta Health report. (Peggy Lam)

The latest annual report from Alberta Health reveals the growing gap between the life expectancy of First Nations and other Albertans.

Indigenous people are dying 12 years earlier than the total provincial population, averaging out at 70.36 years in 2015.

That's the lowest it's been in five years.

"It's certainly a concerning finding to see this continued gap, even expanding gap in life expectancy between First Nations Albertans and other Albertans in the province," said Cheryl Currie, associate professor at the University of Lethbridge and research chair in Aboriginal Health for Alberta Innovates — Health Solutions.

(Alberta Health)

Premature death is the major factor that influences these statistics, said Currie.

"We've all heard the news reports about suicide among indigenous youth in Canada, the fentanyl crisis [and] opioid overdose death. This has hit young people very hard."

According to the report, the province's First Nations population has a higher rate of suicide, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, heart disease and high blood pressure than everyone else in Alberta.

Infant mortality rate remains high

While the indigenous infant mortality dropped last year from 7.82 deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 10.27 in 2011, it's still well above the provincial average of 4.39.

Currie said the problem starts after a mother takes her child home from the hospital. 

"We're looking at issues such as inadequate housing, overcrowded homes," she said.

"Situations that are going on that could result in SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and premature death of those infants before their first year of life."

Overcrowding is a major problem on many reserves, where housing is in short supply and living conditions often substandard. (Coleen Rajotte/CBC)

Quality of life must be improved

Life expectancy is a measure of quantity, not quality.

But Currie said the only way to ensure Alberta's First Nations people have a chance to live longer is by improving their quality of life.

"First Nation people are living a larger proportion of their life span with injuries and disease that are affecting their quality of life and shortening their life span [and] also affecting their ability to contribute meaningfully to Alberta."

She's "encouraged" by the work being done by the federal government and provincial government in the areas of mental health and addiction, but said we still have a long way to go.

"We need to look to recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The impact of the residential school system, operating for 150 years in Canada has caused intergenerational trauma."