Why Is Diabetes Improving For Whites, But Not For Blacks?

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A close-up of fingers and a diabetic blood sugar test

First the bad news: The percentage of Americans with diabetes has doubled since 1988, with nearly one in 10 adults now diagnosed with the blood-sugar disease, according to a new study.

“Diabetes has increased dramatically. The rates have almost doubled since the late ’80s and early ’90s,” said Elizabeth Selvin, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore.

However, the news only gets worse (depending on the color of your skin): researchers have also found that while some aspects of diabetes management are improving for whites, none of these gains are being seen for blacks. Experts say that this finding suggests that more public health dollars need to be directed towards minority communities to help prevent the disease, raise awareness about the disease, and to help increase access to medical treatment.

“This study also highlights that the increase in diabetes really tracks closely with the epidemic of obesity. The diabetes epidemic is really a direct consequence of the rise in obesity,” Selvin said.

Poorly controlled diabetes poses serious health risks, including heart disease, kidney damage and blindness.

For the new study, the researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which included more than 43,000 adults followed from the first survey period (1988 to 1994) to the most recent (1999 to 2010).

In 1988 to 1994, the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes was 5.5 percent. By the next survey in 1999 to 2004, that number had risen to 7.6 percent. In the final survey, done from 2005 to 2010, the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes was 9.3 percent.

During that same time period, levels of obesity also rose. For people without diabetes, obesity rates rose from about 21 percent in the first survey to over 32 percent in the last. In those with diabetes, nearly 44 percent were obese during the first survey. That number rose to about 61 percent in the most recent survey.

Results of the study appear in the April 15 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“The reality is that we know what to do to prevent type 2 diabetes, but doing it on a population level is an incredible challenge,” Selvin said. “There’s some evidence that the obesity epidemic may have plateaued, but combating the environment that contributes to obesity is an incredible difficulty.”

The Overall Lesson: People Have Got To Start Getting Healthier

Experts suggested that encouraging people to become healthier will continue to involve a developed healthy lifestyle strategy, such as it becoming commonplace for a doctor to counsel overweight patients on making diet and exercise changes.

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