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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - A changing climate and a more settled lifestyle have removed any protection that Canada's Inuit people may once have had from diabetes, according to a report published on Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Researchers have long thought that the Inuit, the aboriginal people of northern regions of Canada, Alaska and Greenland, were largely immune to the health risks of obesity, because diabetes cases were rare.
But the Journal article, written by researchers at two Canadian universities, found that Inuit in northern Canada had diabetes at similar levels to the rest of the Canadian population.
"Stories (that) the Inuit were protected against diabetes go way back in time, and particularly the 1970s," said lead author Grace Egeland of McGill University in Montreal, in an interview from Norway.
"With westernization and rapid changes in the Arctic, we're finding they're at basically the same risk as general Canadians."
Melting polar ice has made it more difficult for Inuit to hunt for food over long distances. At the same time, they are increasingly settling in permanent communities and taking less-active, paying jobs, Egeland said.
The move from a hunting-based lifestyle has caused many Inuit to switch from a traditional diet heavy on fish or caribou to store-bought food, rich in fats and sugars, and to increased alcohol consumption, Egeland said.
Those lifestyle changes add girth to a person's waist and increase levels of a fat type called triglycerides, which are markers of diabetes.
"The changes have been quite profound on many levels," Egeland said.
Type 2 diabetes, the main type of the disease, occurs when the body doesn't effectively use or produce enough insulin, a hormone that controls the amount of glucose in the blood.
Researchers from McGill and the University of Toronto used data from a 2007-08 study of nearly 2,600 Canadian Inuit.
Their work found that 1.9 percent of those under age 50 had diabetes while 12.2 percent of those 50 and older had the disease. Those rates are slightly lower than, but similar to, the rest of the Canadian population.
The article reported that 35 percent of Inuit were obese, in line with the rest of the population.
The report focused on Canadian Inuit, but diabetes rates among Inuit people in Alaska and Greenland are also rising, Egeland said.
Worsening health in the North due to obesity is likely to drive up healthcare costs, Egeland added, with most Inuit living far from Canada's biggest cities.
(For a link to the report: here)
Editing by Rob Wilson