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Cultural Loss Leads to Poorer Health for Ethnic Minorities

Some of the longest-lasting consequences of colonialization have been the long-term health effects on indigenous people in the places where settlers moved. Indigenous and aboriginal people tend to be less healthy - and live shorter lives - than the descendants of those who settled in their lands. For example, in Canada, indigenous - or First Nation - people live on average seven fewer years than Europeans. Aboriginal Australians live on average 17 fewer years than white Australians.

Canadian researcher Malcolm King says part of the reason for shorter lives has to do with higher rates of health problems.

"In simple terms, things such as type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, infectious diseases of a variety of types, and lung diseases and so on, are all found at higher than the comparison rates within the country, in many of these countries with indigenous populations," King says.

King is head of the Institute of Aboriginal Peoples' Health, part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and conducts research at the University of Alberta. In a review in the British journal The Lancet, King explored the underlying causes of the health gap.

He says factors such as loss of culture, land and language play a part in poor health outcomes.

"This has a negative effect on health through a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the importance of identity, of having an identity, particularly to mental health," he says.

King cites the history of Canada, where many young indigenous children were taken from their families to live at residential schools and be educated in the European system. King says as a result, these young people never developed a cultural identity.

"They fail to develop the types of bonding that would be normal and that they would have had, had the residential schools not happened," he says.

King says that measures to resolve some of these problems might fall outside of the realm of traditional health interventions - for example, housing. King and his co-author propose that health researchers get involved in projects such as housing, economic development and educational projects in order to study their health effects.

"Hopefully, the health benefits of these complex social, economic interactions… by learning what it is about economic development or housing that actually helps to improve health, we can then design more programs and ultimately make better use of the knowledge that we have," King says.

Governments have a responsibility to work with indigenous peoples to help them solve issues in their community, King says. And he says the solutions should not be created in a paternalistic way, but as a collaborative effort.