09/25/2013 08:08 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2013

Native Hawaiians Have Lower Life Expectancy Than State Average, New Study Says

Life expectancy for Native Hawaiians is 6.2 years lower than the state average, though life expectancy has increased by nearly 12 years since 1950.

Therein lies the "good news, bad news" of a new study published Tuesday.

While much progress has been made to improve the health and quality of life of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders living in Hawaii, their lives are still shorter than whites and Asians. The "big three" killers are diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

The reasons are multiple, including lower income levels and lack of access to services.

But there's more good news in the study, published by the John A. Burns School of Medicine: The cultural values and practices that sustained Hawaiians for centuries are key to their continued recovery, including the "healing power" of hula, as one health expert put it, cultural education through charter schools and growing food in a back yard or school garden.

"We are returning to the things we know work well, things our ancestors knew but we have lost," said Dr. Joseph Keaweaimoku Kaholokula, chairman of the Department of Native Hawaiian Health at the UH medical school.

The study's many authors want to capitalize on what they say has been tremendous progress in treating Hawaiians, Samoans, Tongans, Chamorro, Micronesians and Filipinos.

While the existence described for Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders is anything but healthy, the study shows promising signs of change:

• The infant mortality rate for Hawaiians and Filipinos have shown "clear improvement" over the past 25 years.
• Over the past decade, Hawaiians have reported greater participation in diabetes self-management activities.
• The number of Hawaiians enrolled in community colleges jumped 53 percent between 1992 and 2010.
• Traditional values have helped many in the Hawaiian community cope with and overcome health challenges.

A last point is a key finding of the study: that the integration of cultural practices into health intervention "is innovative and an important promising practice." Traditional values like ohana, lokahi and aloha "strengthen the resilience, identity and social connectedness of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and contribute to their physical, mental and spiritual health."

Experts agree that an "integrated and multi-systemic approach" is necessary to establish "health equity," the study concludes.

For more, check out the complete coverage at Honolulu's Civil Beat.



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