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Forty Percent of Americans at Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

A recent study by Edward Gregg, chief of the epidemiology and statistics branch in the division of diabetes translation at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seeks to project the future risk to Americans for developing diabetes. The study itself does not distinguish between types of diabetes, but assumes the greatest risk will be for developing type 2, since those are the majority of the current cases.

Researchers considered the medical histories and causes of death for around 600,000 adults between 1985 and 2011 in order to project trends of lifetime diabetes risk, as well as reduction in life spans. What they discovered was that the average risk of developing type 2 diabetes for the average 20 year old American man and woman jumped from 20% and 27% (in the 1980s) to about 40% (as of 2011). This is a striking jump, and one that promises many challenges for the American health care system.

Why are these trends increasing? There are probably various factors to blame: the rate of obesity is growing for one, which is one of the main risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes; population growth is another factor, increasing the genetic pool of people who are predisposed to developing type 2 diabetes; and average life spans are increasing – so there is a higher likelihood that a person might develop diabetes by the sheer fact of their living longer.

Even with these factors in place, a 40% increase is still a very large projection. This projection is even higher when the trend is isolated for minority groups, such as Latinos or African Americans, with a projected risk of around 50%. It is understandable that researchers and guideline agencies focus on the patient – making life style changes is key in reducing our risk for developing this disease. But often, many of these reports are lacking. They place all the emphasis on the patient, but do not consider the barriers faced by many:

  • Access to appropriate foods or farmer’s markets in urban areas, or impoverished communities;
  • Appropriate school lunch programs for children in underserved communities;
  • Access to appropriate preventative healthcare and nutritional education; and of course…
  • The fact that we live in an obesogenic culture: Our culture demands the right to have freedom of choice, but also creates an unhealthy mindset among its members.

Targeting each patient is like trying to clean a grain of sand from among billions by the side of a polluted lake. While this is still important, if we want to create a dent in the obesity epidemic and reduce the incidence of diabetes cases, we need to change the way our culture views food. We need to make it less attractive for corporations to want to sell us foods which are nutritionally bankrupt, and we need to take seriously the nutrition of our children and our neediest of families. We simply cannot bank on making a change in the way society eats and lives, while we keep making attractive combinations of foods with which we can kill ourselves.

Personal accountability and making that personal change are an important part of the equation – and they are tough choices that we have to make. We are definitely accountable for our own health, and we can do it. But just like with smoking and smoking manufacturers, our society is going to have to take some strong stances against corporations that seek to create addicting food combinations for their customer base – combinations which are far from the ‘occasional treat,’ they are complete nutritional voids that tend to lead to compulsion.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Edward Gregg, Ph.D., chief, epidemiology and statistics branch, division of diabetes translation, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Minisha Sood, M.D., endocrinologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Aug. 13, 2014, The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, online