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Researchers say many Black and Mexican Americans are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in their mid-40s. Ika84/Getty Images
  • Researchers say Black and Mexican Americans are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at younger ages than other groups.
  • They note that the earlier a person develops type 2 diabetes the more likely they are to develop cardiovascular disease.
  • Experts say health issues such as high blood pressure as well as family history and structural racism are factors in these younger diagnoses.

After years of public awareness and education, the numbers surrounding diabetes might surprise you.

More than 34 million people in the United States, about 1 in every 10, have diabetes. Nearly 1 in 5 don’t know they have it.

Another 88 million Americans have prediabetes. More than 8 in 10 don’t know they’re at risk.

The risk of death for adults with diabetes is 60 percent higher than those who don’t have the disease.

People with diabetes are also at greater risk of developing serious health complications such as blindness, kidney failure, heart disease, and stroke.

And the earlier you develop diabetes, the greater your risk of developing complications, cardiovascular disease, or premature death.

Using that as a starting point, researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois looked at the breakdown of what ages racial and ethnic groups were diagnosed.

Their study was recently published in the JAMA Internal Medicine.

The scientists reviewed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2011 to 2018. They honed in on the age that more than 3,000 American adults with type 2 diabetes were diagnosed.

They found that most Black Americans in the study were diagnosed around 45 years old. The majority of Mexican American participants were diagnosed around age 47.

However, most whites in the study were diagnosed around age 52. And most Asian American adults in the study were diagnosed around 51 years old.

Dr. Joshua Joseph, an endocrinologist in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University, said several factors are at work in Black and Mexican American communities.

“Clinical factors such as higher blood pressure, higher body mass index, and behavioral factors such as dietary intake and less sleep,” he told Healthline.

Factors, he says, that often occur in the context of structural racism.

“For instance, the impact of redlining on home ownership, healthy sources of food, and safe environments for physical activity,” he explained.

Joseph said people with diabetes are also at risk of developing a more severe case of COVID-19.

“The rationale for the increased risk is still being explored, but it seems to involve a higher risk for inflammation, blood vessel damage, and blood clots,” he explained.

However, Veronica Brady, PhD, RN, a certified diabetes care specialist and spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists, said the study findings need to be context.

“The findings were based on self-reporting of diabetes. As the authors stated, sometimes people lose track of time,” she told Healthline. “The other thing to consider is that diabetes is common among these vulnerable populations, so providers have a tendency to test for diabetes sooner.”

She also said factors such as dietary intake, exercise, and other comorbidities in that population might play a role.

“My sister and I say that diabetes is not our destiny. We are going to make sure that we try to prevent it and delay it as much as possible,” said Angela Ginn-Meadow, a registered dietitian, RN, and a senior education coordinator at the University of Maryland’s Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology.

Ginn-Meadow has been a diabetes educator for more than 18 years. Her interest and passion are personal.

“I grew up in a family that had diabetes. My father, both my grandmothers, my grandfather, and my aunt,” she told Healthline. “My father was diagnosed in his 40s, my grandfather was 86, and he lived to 96.

“We know it has a genetic thread. If you were born to a parent with diabetes, you have a 40 percent chance of developing type 2 diabetes. But there are things you can do to prevent it or delay it as long as possible,” Ginn-Meadow said.

Your prevention plan, she said, should include 150 minutes of exercise a week, and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet. Losing weight and ensuring you get screened are also important.

Ginn-Meadow said these items could be some early warning signs:

  • your routine blood sugars come back slightly elevated
  • you have a cut or skin rash that doesn’t heal well
  • a new mother has a baby that weighs more than 9 pounds
  • a woman with multiple yeast infections
  • you’re increasingly thirsty

“That could really be your body telling you that something else is going on… a wake-up call,” she said.

That’s the time your primary care physician needs to refer you to a diabetes prevention program.

Many institutions have such programs, but Ginn-Meadow says there are not enough physician referrals and not enough people take advantage of them.

“We know that only 7 percent of people [with diabetes] on Medicare take advantage of diabetes education,” she noted.