Health experts are sounding an alarm over what they call an "epidemic" of diabetes that is hitting Hispanics particularly hard. They're more likely to develop the disease, and to suffer from devastating complications such as kidney failure, blindness, and heart problems.
Almost one in every two Hispanic babies born in the United States will develop diabetes later in life, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With the country's Hispanic population swelling, this diabetes boom will be "devastating," says Dr. Robert Cuddihy, medical director of the International Diabetes Center at Park Nicollet Health Services in Minneapolis.
About 2.5 million Hispanic adults in the United States have diabetes, according to the CDC. Hispanic Americans are 1.5 times more likely to have diabetes than whites of a similar age, and Mexican Americans are more than twice as likely to have the condition. The good news is that diabetes rates among Hispanic Americans aren't rising as fast as for the general population, says Nilka Rios Burrows, an epidemiologist with the CDC.
Nonetheless, "it's one of the biggest diseases that affects us," says Dr. Carlos Campos, a physician who also serves on the American Diabetes Association's national subcommittee for Hispanic initiatives. Among the association's programs is the Por tu Familia. The initiative features motivational speaker and author Maria Marin, who was diagnosed with diabetes at age 15, as a spokeswoman.
People with diabetes can't produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that converts sugars, starches, and other food into energy. The most common form of diabetes, Type 2, is linked to obesity and lack of exercise.
Lifestyle changes and drugs can help keep problems in check, but studies have found that Hispanics with diabetes aren't as good at controlling their condition as others. Dr. Campos says a big part of the problem is a fear of insulin stemming from the myth that it causes health problems. People remember, he says, that their grandmother "was put on insulin and within the year she had to be put on kidney dialysis, or she had to have her foot cut off."
"It used to be that insulin was the drug of last resort," Dr. Cuddihy says. "It only got started when you were on death's doorstep. That gave insulin a bad rap, which was undeserved."
One of the reasons Hispanics are especially susceptible to diabetes, scientists say, are "thrifty genes" that gave their ancestors an advantage in agricultural societies in which food was far from plentiful. They adapted to this subsistence living by packing away calories when food was plentiful and burning them slowly in harsher times. It was a great tactic back then, but in the super-sized, deep-fried 21st century, Hispanics tend to be heavier than people of other ethnic backgrounds.
A diet heavy with white flour, potatoes, and white rice makes matters worse, Dr. Campos says, because, in diabetics, these high carbohydrate foods can cause dangerous spikes in the body's blood-sugar levels.
However, Ms. Rios Burrows says, "you don't have to knock yourself out" to reduce your chances of developing diabetes, or to lessen its affects if you already have it. A little exercise and a better diet will make a difference. She suggests simple steps such as walking more, taking the stairs, and cutting back on sodas and fatty foods.
"We need to starting eating things that have a lot more fiber in them," says Dr. Campos, who recommends dietary tweaks such as replacing white rice with brown rice and eating sweet potatoes instead of potatoes.
A healthier diet and regular exercise "will make all the difference in the world," he says.
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