Does your ethnic background define your risk of developing type II diabetes?

by Mark Benson on September 11, 2012

Does your ethnic background define your risk of developing type II diabetes?

A rather alarming study by the Imperial College London has cast a great shadow over millions of people in the UK with a suggestion that those of Asian, African and Caribbean descent living in the UK have a greater risk of developing type II diabetes. The figures in question are absolutely amazing and have shocked many hardened researchers and the fight is now on to find out whether these figures are correct and what specific elements lead to this massive increase in risk.

Ethnic background

This is not the first study to suggest that the risk of developing type II diabetes in particular can be very different across the various ethnic backgrounds but the figures in question are certainly alarming. While there are a number of fairly prominent differences in lifestyle when comparing different ethnic backgrounds scientists are not yet sure why the risk does increase significantly amongst those of South Asian, African and African Caribbean descent.

It could be to do with diet? It could be to do with lifestyle? The truth is at this moment in time researchers have no definitive answer.

The increased risk of developing type II diabetes

The study took in 4,200 people who were living in London and found that 50% of them, all of South Asian, African or African Caribbean descent, developed the condition by the age of 80. This is roughly twice the rate currently attributed to those of European descent and obviously the situation is of great concern to millions of people in the UK and millions of people around the world.

There was a suggestion that the massive increase in the risk between the various ethnic groups would “level out over time” but scientists have found that this is not the case as yet. There was a growing belief that some ethnic groups were being tested for the condition earlier than their European counterparts and therefore the figures were “true” and being compared to “incomplete” European descent figures – but again this would not appear to be the case in reality.

Is there a difference in genetics?

Scientists have made great strides over the last few years with regards to the DNA of diabetes and the various genes associated with the condition. Therefore they were able to compare the various “risky genes” which are directly associated with diabetes across the various ethnic groups. There were expectations that this specific element of the condition would vary across the ethnic groups but this was found not to be the case. It is back to the drawing board for researchers but where do scientists look next?

It may well be that there are genes and elements of DNA which have yet to be directly linked and associated with type II diabetes which may be more prevalent in different ethnic groups. There may also be other triggers which are as yet unidentified but which should hopefully rear their heads over the months and years ahead. While the fact scientists are unsure why the figures are so different is of obvious concern it does give them something to work with in the future and they will eventually find what is triggering this massive increase in risk amongst those of Asian, African and Caribbean descent.

Can we believe these figures?

This study was carried out by the well-respected Imperial College London under the stringent guidelines and conditions which dictate scientific research. While you could argue that the study group of 4,200 people, all living in London, could have been expanded and potentially taken in other cities around the UK, would this have made any difference to the underlying figures?

Until we know definitively why the risk is significantly larger amongst various ethnic backgrounds there are growing calls for those seen to be “at risk” to be tested sooner rather than later. Indeed we may end up with various ethnic groups being offered diabetes tests at the age of 25 as opposed to the more traditional age of 40. The reality is that the traditional 40 cut-off point at which the risk of diabetes increases significantly has been falling over the years. More and more people are now experiencing diabetes in their 30s and even in their 20s and increased testing and earlier testing seems inevitable.

Cost to the NHS

While it is very difficult to compare the cost of diabetes treatment against the cost of life the reality is that unless pre-emptive work is done in the area of diabetes treatment, and diabetes testing, the NHS will at some point run out of money. There are many scare stories around today regarding the ever-growing instances of diabetes, and especially diabetes type II, and while some may predict a doomsday scenario even the more optimistic studies do recognise a significant increase in the risk of developing the condition.

Many experts believe that an investment in early detection and a promotional campaign highlighting the potential risks of diabetes, which can in some cases be directly linked to your lifestyle, could save billions of pounds in the long run. Will any government in the UK be brave enough to carry out a nationwide survey and a nationwide study of diabetes? Would they be brave enough to introduce free diabetes tests to the masses?

Mystery and confusion

While the study by the Imperial College London is obviously of great concern to those at specific risk of diabetes it does give researchers something to look at in the future. If they can find the specific switches which increase the risk of developing type II diabetes across different ethnic groups then perhaps they can learn how to switch off various genes and elements of DNA?

It is becoming more apparent that over the next couple of years we may well see more mystery and confusion with regards to diabetes the deeper researchers dig. However, over time there is no doubt that they will find various links and various reasons for the anomaly in risk figures which they can then use to target specific groups of the population with specific treatments or testing. These are very difficult times for diabetics and those at risk of developing diabetes but if we take a step back and look at the wider picture there is no doubt that progress has been made.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the DiabetesForum.com Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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