Imagine pricking yourself in the finger first thing when you wake up. It’s not an ideal way to start off the day, but many South Asians are becoming accustomed to this daily ritual in order to check their blood-sugar levels. If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, I’m talking about diabetes and its growing rate of diagnoses among South Asians.
Don’t think you should be concerned? Well, according to recent studies, the simple fact of being South Asian in the United States is an “independent risk factor” for developing type 2 diabetes. A report published in Nature and Genetics in August 2011 said that South Asians have a fourfold higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes due to high glucose levels in the blood. The research team discovered six new genes linked to type 2 diabetes–a form of diabetes affecting 55 million South Asians already, and by 2030, will hit 80 million.
Although we cannot do much about the genetic susceptibility, we do have power over two important factors: First our body fat distribution (those with heavier onsets are not the only ones susceptible) and secondly our environmental factors.
According to data complied by the NYU Langone Medical Center, an analysis of 1.5 million birth records in New York City between 1990 and 2001 revealed that South Asian women had the highest prevalence rate of 11.1%. South Asian women also had the highest increase in having gestational diabetes by 95% in comparison to other groups. Even preliminary research done in New York City show results indicating 28% of Bangladeshis have diabetes, which also sets South Asians at a higher risk for hospitalization for diabetes.
A study done by the Center for the Study of Asian American Health (CSAAH) found that when doing a Community Health Needs and Resource Assessment (CHNRA) of South Asians, of the 67% that were screened for diabetes, about 17% were told that they had diabetes, which is three times the rate of diabetes for Asian Americans in New York City.
A study done in 1999 claimed that South Asian immigrants were seven times likelier to have type 2 diabetes when compared to the general population, but 11 years after, there was still new data that supported that South Asians who live in the United States were actually at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes than Caucasians and other Asian immigrants.
In more recent studies from 2011, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene stated that during their study from 2002-2008, nearly 4,900 people out of the 54,000 people surveyed had been diagnosed with diabetes, showing that South Asians have the highest rate of diabetes of any ethnic group in New York. Data is nearly doubled for foreign-born South Asians.
And ladies, it gets worse for us! A growing problem for South Asian women is the risk of getting gestational diabetes. That’s right, when you are pregnant, the rate of diabetes usually ranges from 2-10%, with an average of 7% of all pregnancies, but for South Asians, the rate is 14% of all pregnancies, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Maria Isabella Creatore, an epidemiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, believes the reasons for unexplained increases in the risk of diabetes for immigrants who stay longer in the United States includes: Introduction to westernized diet, acculturation stress and isolation due to a change in their economic and social status.
Creatore stated in regards to diabetes in the South Asian community, “South Asians really stood out” because “they’re getting it so young.”
So what is really causing South Asians to be at higher risk for type 2 diabetes? According to the study Type 2 Diabetes in People of South Asian Origin: Why is Diabetes More Common in South Asians, the genetic susceptibility to insulin resistance may be the reason South Asians are more prone to diabetes.
Lifestyle factors, such as low physical activity prevails a common problem among Indians (14%), Pakistanis (30%) and Bangladeshis (45%). Not to mention, environmental factors such as vitamin D deficiency, chewing of betel nut, and cigarette smoking.
What can you do to assess your risks and take preventative measures? The Palo Alto Medical Foundation made a website specifically targeted at the South Asian population to give them more information about diabetes, the symptoms & risks, preventative measures, as well as ways to reduce the risks through weight loss, diet changes, and physical activity.
Before diabetes turns into a greater epidemic in the South Asian community, become aware of the high risk factors related to diabetes in our community. Just a few preventative steps can prolong or cut the chances of getting the disease by 58%. Educate yourself and others. Go get screened and take a loved one with you. You will thank yourself later when you won’t have to prick your finger every morning.
— MUNIA ISLAM