National health surveys conducted in the past 35 years have demonstrated that diabetes does not affect every community in the same way. It is now clear African Americans are getting diabetes at an increasingly high rate. About 2.6 million African Americans or 11 percent of the African American community has diabetes and that 35-40% do not even know it. The rate of diabetes has reached near-epidemic levels in the African American community. It is important to know why this has happened and what can be done about it.
Why Are African American at Greater Risk for Diabetes?
Researchers point to two reasons why diabetes is on the rise in the African American community. The first is based on the observation that “diabetes runs in families.” It seems there is a strong genetic factor in who gets diabetes. Scientists are now working on determining which genes cause diabetes. Some researchers believe that African Americans inherited a gene from their African ancestors that enabled Africans to adapt more effectively to “feast and famine” food cycles. With fewer such cycles, this gene developed for survival in a more uncertain environment may instead make the person more susceptible to developing Type 2 diabetes. Although conclusive findings are not yet available, genetic research is promising and may offer further insight into why the African American community is so at risk for diabetes.
But genetics does not entirely account for the high rate of diabetes among African Americans. Researchers know that being overweight is a major risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. In addition to being overweight, it turns out the location of the excess weight also matters. Carrying excess weight above the waist is a stronger risk factor for Type 2 diabetes than carrying excess weight below the waist. Studies show that African Americans are more likely to carry their excess weight above their waist which increases their risk of diabetes.
Like genetics, the rate of obesity in the African American community does not itself provide a sufficient reason why African Americans have higher rates of diabetes. Researchers have also identified a lack of exercise as one significant factor contributing to the high rates of diabetes in African Americans. It has been known for some time that people who participate in little or no exercise activity are at a greater risk for diabetes. A national survey indicates that 50% of African American men and 67% of African American women report they do not include exercise in their daily routines. The lack of exercise, along with genetic and obesity risk factors, may explain why the rate of diabetes in the African American community is so high.
Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston has recently received funding from Therasense, a manufacturer of blood glucose monitoring systems, to begin a diabetes awareness campaign targeting African Americans. “Research shows that people who are at risk for diabetes can actually reduce their likelihood of developing the disease by nearly 60% through a program of sustained weight loss, and exercising for about 30 minutes every day,” adds Alan Moses, M.D., chief medical officer at Joslin. “Our goal is to help African Americans in avoiding diabetes if possible, and to get the care and education they need to prevent complications if they develop the disease.” Public health officials also argue that responding to the problem requires an increased awareness among African Americans as to how to delay or prevent diabetes through diet and exercise.