Diabetes and Latinos: A Perfect Storm
A look at the brewing storm and how we can change its course
Editor's Note: While this columnist is no longer writing for dLife.com and we have ceased to update the information contained herein, there is much to be read here that is still applicable to the lives of people with diabetes. If you wish to act on anything you learn here, be sure to consult your doctor first. Please enjoy the column!
October 2007 — It's so common these days, that not having read or heard about it somewhere means you have lived under a stone. I'm talking about diabetes, but more specifically diabetes among Latinos in the United States. It seems that we are facing a perfect storm of sorts where the outlook "after the clouds are gone" doesn't look too promising.
The numbers are a slam dunk: according to the Joslin Latino Diabetes Initiative, the risk of developing diabetes is 1 1/2 times greater for Latinos than for Caucasian Americans. The stats are grimmer for Mexican Americans: they are more than twice as likely to develop diabetes as Caucasians. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), the National Diabetes Clearinghouse, the American Diabetes Association, and many other groups that look into health and diabetes concur – we have a problem.
There are two main types of diabetes, type 1 and type 2 (there are other types, but for the purposes of this article we will stick to these two). Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas eventually fails to produce insulin. In type 2 diabetes the pancreas still does its job, but that is not the case with the insulin it produces, which is needed to transform the glucose found in foods into energy.
The incidence of type 1 is more elevated among Caucasians, but in type 2 territory (which accounts for more than 90% of diabetes cases or close to 19 million people in the U.S.) Latinos, alongside African-Americans and Native Americans, have a much higher incidence. This is of particular concern, considering that lifestyle changes can prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes in high-risk individuals, unlike type 1, which cannot be prevented.
"Why Latinos?" After all, meals high in carbohydrates and fat (think tacos, empanadas, arepas), sedentary lifestyles, and excess weight - three of the factors most commonly tied to the incidence of type 2 diabetes - are not exclusive to Latinos. They are a staple of the Western lifestyle of the past few decades.
It just seems that the incidence of these elements is accentuated in Latino communities and other minorities. Take excess weight, for example: according to a study by the CDC, an estimated 16 percent of children and adolescents ages 6-19 years are overweight. By comparison, as of 2005, nearly one of four Latino children in the United States was overweight.
Why do Latino communities have more overweight children than the average children in the U.S.? While there could be genetic elements playing a role, making it harder for Latinos to adapt to the prevalent mix of poor diet and low level of physical activity, until there is a definitive answer to the cause, we are in front of a problem we cannot ignore.
So what can you do? If you have type 2 diabetes, you can help your body and your body will thank you for it. Here are three easy things for you to do right away:
- Take diabetes seriously. You may have heard some horror stories, which have in denial ("I only have a ‘touch' of sugar," I've heard some say.) Diabetes doesn't have to make you blind, loose you a leg or cost you your life, but if you don't take it seriously, it can.
- Find yourself a good endocrinologist. If you have diabetes, a general practitioner will not be enough to help you get the treatment you need. Diabetes is an endocrine disorder, so if you have diabetes, visiting an endocrinologist is not an option: it's a must.
- Inform yourself. This can be done with the help of a Certified Diabetes Educator; reading books, magazines or websites like dLife; or by participating in communities like TuDiabetes, where you can connect with others touched by diabetes.
Before I finish this first installment of "Hola Diabetes", I want to thank dLife for the opportunity to share with my fellow Latinos with diabetes. Through this monthly column directed at the Latino community, we can make this perfect storm lose part of its strength.
dLife's Viewpoints columnists are not all medical experts, but everyday people living with diabetes and sharing their personal experiences, most often at a set point in time. While their method of diabetes management may work for them, everyone is different. Please consult with your diabetes care team before acting on anything you read here to find out what will work best for you.
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Like many of us who live near major cities, I've been to a few ADA Diabetes Expos — my first in November, 2003, just over a year after diagnosis. The Expo took up a large part of New York City's Javits Center; most of the major meter, insulin, pump, and pill manufacturers were there; there were enough food vendors (with free samples!)...