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Do Aboriginal people get SAD in winter? Yes and no.

 Aboriginal people living in the rural north don’t suffer from worse moods when cold weather and short winter days come. But Aboriginal people in Toronto do – even more than non-Aboriginal Torontonians.

The paradoxical findings come from a UTSC study, published in the journal Population and Environment, into if and how Aboriginal people have adapted to weather. Some researchers have suggested that Aboriginal people have adapted genetically to life in the extreme north. If so, they might be physically more resistant to cold and psychologically less prone to the winter blues.

“We wanted to examine if rural Aboriginal groups and urban Aboriginal groups are affected by weather, and look at how climate change may affect these groups similarly or differentially,” says Benita Y. Tam, who recently completed her PhD in physical geography. She conducted the research under the direction of Associate Professor William A. Gough in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences and in collaboration with Leonard J.S. Tsuji at the University of Waterloo and Vicky Edwards at the Fort Albany First Nation. The study was published in the journal Population and Environment.

Tam and her co-authors compared three groups – Aboriginal people living in the rural northern area of Fort Albany, Ontario; Aboriginal people living in Toronto; and non-Aboriginal people living in Toronto. Tam would have liked to have included a group of non-Aboriginal people living in the rural north, but was unable to find a group large enough to test easily.

She gave all of them standard questionnaires that asked about mood, social activity, food consumption, weight gain and length of sleep at different times of the year. The questionnaire can be used to diagnose Seasonal Affective Disorder, a condition in which winter weather causes depression in some people.

For Aboriginals in the rural north, weather had almost no effect on their mood or any of the other measures. Non-Aboriginals in Toronto, on the other hand, generally felt better when it was warmer and sunnier, and worse when it was colder and darker.

But surprisingly, the effect of winter weather was greatest of all for Aboriginal people living in Toronto.

Tam says that the difference could partly be one of lifestyle. Rural Aboriginals tend to be outdoors more, which might improve their moods. Urban Aboriginals face higher levels of social stresses in the city, which might make them more vulnerable to worsening mood when the weather changes.

The study doesn’t completely rule out a genetic adaptation among Aboriginals – perhaps one that provides protection under rural northern conditions, but not under urban conditions, Tams says.

© University of Toronto Scarborough