Racial Profiling in Health

New research shows fitness guidelines that take race into account would better serve people in certain ethnic groups, who require more exercise than others to reduce their risk of Type 2 diabetes. 

Researchers from the University of Glasgow say the three- to five-fold increase in the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in men of South Asian decent is due to their body’s physical makeup. These men require more exercise than European men do to reduce their disease risk.  

“Low fitness is the single most important factor associated with the increased insulin resistance and blood sugar levels in middle-aged South Asian compared with European men living in the UK,” lead researcher Dr. Nazim Ghouri, of the university's Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, said in a release accompanying the study.  

Ghouri, Dr. Jason Gill, and Naveed Sattar studied 100 men from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and another 100 men of European descent ages 40 to 70 living in Scotland.   

None of the men had previously been diagnosed with diabetes. During the study period, however, 13 of the South Asian men and one European man had to be excluded from the data because their health screenings determined they were in fact diabetic. 

The researchers measured the men’s risk factors for diabetes, including their blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, fitness levels, and exercise patterns. Using statistical modeling, the researchers tested the variables to figure out why South Asian men had a greater risk of disease. 

The study found that lower fitness levels and greater body fat content in the Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi men explained their more than 80 percent increase in insulin resistance—the hallmark of diabetes—compared with the white Europeans. 

The study was published yesterday in Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

A Case for Profiling to Prevent Chronic Disease

Other doctors and researchers have argued that the minimum body mass index (BMI) score for obesity should be lowered from 30 to 25 for South Asians. The Glasgow team says their research suggests that to achieve better health, health guidelines should take ethnicity into account. 

“The fact that South Asians' increased insulin resistance and blood sugar levels are strongly associated with their lower fitness levels, and that increasing physical activity is the only way to increase fitness, suggests that South Asians may need to engage in greater levels of physical activity than Europeans to achieve the same levels of fitness and minimize their diabetes risk,” Gill said.

But is it really possible to use racial profiling for good? The Western world has a rocky track record.

A second major hurdle for South Asian men is poor access to medical care in Scotland. A 2008 study published in the British Medical Journal found that gaining access to medical care for South Asians with life-limiting illnesses was difficult because of, among other things, “institutional and, occasionally, personal racial and religious discrimination.”

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