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Diabetes Awareness Month: Combating the Rising Rates of Diabetes Among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
In 2021, Shaheen Aamir found herself struggling with fatigue and unable to actively play with her two kids. Concerned about her weight and lack of exercise, Aamir decided to take a proactive approach to prevent Type 2 diabetes. Her life changed when she participated in the South Asian Healthy Lifestyle Initiative (SAHELI) study, a program designed to treat and prevent diabetes and heart disease among South Asians in the Chicago area. Aamir, like many others in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, was at a higher risk for diabetes than the general population. This article explores the efforts of Asian American researchers to understand the root causes of this increased risk and develop effective prevention programs.
The Unique Risks Faced by Asian Americans
Diabetes Risk Factors
Researchers have discovered that Asians in America are more likely to develop diabetes despite having lower average body mass indexes (BMIs) than their white counterparts. One explanation for this disparity is that Asian bodies tend to store fat in the abdomen and around organs, contributing to a condition known as “skinny fat.” This visceral fat can promote inflammation and insulin resistance, increasing the risk of Type 2 diabetes. While funding for diabetes research in Asian populations has been limited, experts agree that there are steps individuals can take to reduce their risk.
Screening Guidelines and Diagnostic Tests
Recognizing the need for earlier diabetes screening in the AAPI community, health care workers successfully lobbied for changes to screening guidelines. The American Diabetes Association now recommends that Asian Americans get screened for diabetes at a lower body mass index (BMI) of 23. Diagnostic tests for diabetes can also be problematic, as the current cutoffs for determining diabetes were primarily based on research conducted on non-Asians. As a result, many Asians with diabetes may go undiagnosed until complications arise. Researchers recommend further testing for individuals with A1C levels falling in the “prediabetes” range to more accurately diagnose diabetes.
Understanding Asian American and Pacific Islander Diversity
While it is tempting to group all Asians together, researchers emphasize the need to recognize the diversity within the AAPI community. Different ethnic subgroups have varying levels of diabetes risk, with South Asians, Filipinos, and Pacific Islanders being particularly vulnerable. Additionally, the age at which diabetes develops and the specific complications that arise can differ among these groups. Understanding these differences is crucial for developing tailored treatment approaches.
The Importance of Advocacy and Prevention Programs
SAHELI: A Successful Diabetes Prevention Program
Prevention programs have shown promise in reducing diabetes risk among Asian Americans. The SAHELI program, tailored specifically for South Asians, combines cultural interventions, dietary changes, exercise, and stress management techniques. Participants in the SAHELI study reported positive changes in their energy levels, weight management, and overall well-being. These findings underscore the effectiveness of lifestyle changes in preventing diabetes.
The Long Road Ahead
While advocacy and prevention programs are making headway in the fight against diabetes, there is still much work to be done. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its associated stressors and sedentary behaviors, has exacerbated the problem. Researchers and healthcare providers acknowledge the need for continued efforts to promote awareness, education, and long-term lifestyle changes in order to combat the rising rates of diabetes among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Diabetes Awareness Month serves as a reminder of the importance of understanding and addressing the unique healthcare challenges faced by different communities. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are particularly vulnerable to diabetes, despite having lower average BMIs. Through research, advocacy, and prevention programs like SAHELI, strides are being made to combat these disparities. By promoting awareness, providing culturally tailored interventions, and advocating for policy changes, Asian American researchers and healthcare workers aim to reduce the prevalence of diabetes among their communities. However, sustained efforts and long-term lifestyle changes will be necessary to truly make a difference.**
Bold text: Diabetes Awareness Month