Pharmacy professor talks solutions as Diabetes rates hit an all time high

World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan delivers a speech on Wednesday, March 23, 2016, in Lyon, France. Chan said Wednesday April 6, 2016, that excessive weight, aging and population growth have recently driven a huge increase in worldwide cases of diabetes and called for stepped-up measures to reduce risk factors as well as improve treatment and care. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Leading research shows that diabetes around the world has nearly quadrupled.

“The increase in TYPE 2 diabetes is due to increasing rates of obesity, as the diabetes rate increase mirrors the obesity rate increase.  Also, the aging of the population contributes to this increasing rate,” Thomas Buckley, associate clinical professor at the school of pharmacy, said.

That being said, there are also many genetic factors that can change your risk, so diet is not the only thing that impacts your risk of developing the disease, Alison Kohan, assistant nutrition and metabolism professor, said.  

“However, you can’t change your genes but you can change your eating habits,” Kohan said.

According to mayoclinic.org, diabetes is a disease that affects how your body uses sugar glucose.

“Normally, you might eat a plate of pasta from the Student Union and digest and absorb the carbohydrates from that pasta,” Kohan said. “During Type 2 diabetes, the insulin your body secretes in response to the plate of pasta isn’t able to tell your body how to use the carbs, so they are not efficiently used or stored. As a result of this ineffective insulin action, you end up with high blood glucose levels, which causes a host of other problems.”

Diabetes is more common in ethnic minorities, Buckley said, where the overall rate of diabetes in Conn. is 8.9 percent; 8.1 percent white, 14.6 percent black and 10.2 percent Hispanic.

Additionally, Buckley said that as income goes down, diabetes goes up.

If household income is greater than $75,000 the diabetes rate is 5.7 percent, if income is less than $25,000 the diabetes rate increases to 13.6 percent.

“This is sometimes called the "health/wealth gradient,” as wealth decreases, overall health outcomes decline as well,” Buckley said. “Certainly there is a link with the poor quality of diet in poor households, ‘food deserts’ in communities, meaning a lack of affordable nutritious foods in poorer communities.”

Treating race as an etiological factor has been the subject of debate, Buckley said, and it has been argued that despite some genotypic delineations, race largely represents a complex mixture of behavioral, environmental and social exposures.

“In comparison with Whites, African Americans often are poorer, have less education, are more likely to live in distressed households and communities, are less able to access quality health care, and have a less favorable risk factor profile for many diseases,” Buckley said referencing Am J Public Health. 2007 December; 97(12): 2260–2267.

Age can also be a measure. Buckley said that the diabetes rate in 18 to 44-year-olds is much lower, 2.5 percent, while 65-year-olds and older the rate increases to 19.5 percent.

To solve the problem, Buckley said, we need to prevent obesity/diabetes (sometimes called diabesity). This can be combatted through activity options such as walkable or bikeable communities, more grocery stores in urban areas and less sedentary time.

“These are ‘upstream’ solutions to prevent the ‘downstream’ result of diabetes,” Buckley said.

To prevent diabetes, Connecticut is working to increase the awareness of prediabetes, Buckley said. Prediabetes is a condition in which a person’s blood glucose levels are higher than normal but are not high enough to be considered diabetes.

“This is important because research has shown lifestyle intervention can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes,” Buckley said.  “Many people with prediabetes do not know they have the condition.”

Buckley said that while an estimated 37 percent of U.S. adults have prediabetes, only 7.2 percent of Connecticut adults report having been told that they have prediabetes.

Kohan said she thinks the hard work of many scientists, including those here at UConn, will ultimately result in a cure for Type 2 diabetes.

“As we continue to study how foods function as medicine coupled with a focus on understanding how each person’s genetics play a role, I think there will be many ways to treat this disease in addition to current strategies.,” Kohan said. “From a public health perspective, however, the best cure is to prevent the disease in the first place.”