Report: Alaskans dogged by chronic diseases and many lack healthy lifestyles or regular screenings

(Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon) - Alaskans have high rates of chronic health conditions that can lead to death, and they are failing to follow lifestyles that would keep those chronic conditions at bay, according to a newly released state report.

(An exercise station at Anchorage’s Westchester Lagoon is seen on Monday. The “Fitness Cluster” offers opportunities for strength and cardiovascular training, and signage gives fitness information and advice. Two-thirds of Alaska adults are overweight or obese, and about a fifth of them engage in no physical activity, according to an annual report released by the state Department of Health. Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Two-thirds of Alaska adults are overweight or obese, nearly a third have high blood pressure and 27% have high cholesterol, according to the state Department of Health’s annual Alaska Chronic Disease Facts report.

COVID-19 became the third-leading cause of death for Alaskans in 2021, after cancer and heart disease, and the various chronic conditions that undermine health threaten to make the disease worse, the report said.

Three out of four Alaska adults have underlying health conditions that increase the chances of severe or even deadly effects from COVID-19, the report said. Those conditions include obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease and depression.

Lifestyle habits are tied to some of the conditions, the report said.

Among adults, 21% reported no physical activity and 17% smoke cigarettes, said the report, citing 2021 statistics. Among high school students, 30% were overweight or obese, fewer than half were in physical education classes, about half drank at least one sugary beverage a day and, while only 8% smoked cigarettes, 26% used e-cigarette “vaping” products, according to the annual summary.

The Alaska Chronic Disease Facts’ summary of health conditions for high school students is based on statistics from 2019, the latest available.

Alaska’s adult obesity rates are similar to the national rates recorded from 2017 to 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The teen overweight and obesity rates are similar the national averages for youth, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

While Alaskans are falling short of diet and exercise standards, large numbers are also failing to get the recommended health screenings that detect or prevent chronic diseases that can be deadly, the report said.

More than half of adults who had not been previously diagnosed with diabetes failed to get blood-sugar screenings over a three-year period, the report said. Among adults aged 50 to 75, 30% had failed to get recommended screenings for colorectal cancer, the report said.

Among women 40 and older, 39% had failed to get a mammogram in the prior two years, the report said. Among all adults up to age 64, 11% lacked any health coverage.

The mammogram statistics paralleled those in a separate report that found Alaska women ranked second-to-last among states, after Wyoming, in staying up to date on those breast-cancer screenings. That report examined mammogram rates for women 50 and over, using 2020 statistics from the CDC.

To help people make positive lifestyle changes, the Department of Health launched a “Fresh Start” program last year. The free program can match participants with coaches, offers instruction and distributed health products like blood-pressure cuffs.

However, some health problems are connected to poverty or substandard living conditions that are not easily addressed by changes in individual behavior, the new Alaska Chronic Disease Facts report noted. Those include lack of running water and sanitation services in some rural communities, overcrowded housing and repeated mistreatment of children, the report said.