Diabetes, Race and Ethnicity: What’s the Link?

While there’s a lot we can do to stay healthy, there are some things we just can’t control —like our race and ethnic backgrounds.

This is especially true when it comes to diabetes. People from some ethnic groups and/or races are at a higher risk than others. If your genetic makeup or cultural heritage comes from one or more of the following groups, it’s time to become more proactive about improving your health.

Knowing your personal risk for diabetes, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, can help you offset factors that are beyond your control.

African-American

Type 2 diabetes is one of the biggest health challenges facing African-Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Their findings:

  • African-American adults are 80 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician.
  • One-fourth of all African-American women older than 55 have diabetes.
  • African-Americans are twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die of diabetes.
  • African-Americans have high rates of at least two of the most serious complications from diabetes: amputation (usually of a toe or foot) and kidney failure. 

American Indian and Native Alaskan

American Indians and Native Alaskans have an alarmingly high incidence of diabetes. The federal government’s Indian Health Service reports that:

  • American Indians and Native Alaskans are more than twice as likely to have diabetes, compared with non-Hispanic whites.
  • American Indian and Native Alaskan women are twice as likely to die from diabetes as non-Hispanic white women.
  • In just one 10-year period (1994 to 2004), the incidence of diabetes in American Indian and Native Alaskan youth between the ages of 15 and 19 increased 68 percent.
  • 95 percent of American Indians and Native Alaskans with diabetes have type 2 diabetes.

Years ago, the rate of diabetes in this group was extremely low. The Indian Health Service speculates that the shift from a simple, fresh diet and a lifestyle that included lots of walking, to a less healthy diet and sedentary lifestyle, may be at fault.

Hispanic/Latino

Hispanics (or Latinos) are a specific ethnic group, but they may come from any race, and hail from a multitude of countries and backgrounds. This group includes people of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American or other Spanish cultures or origin. 

The incidence of diabetes varies widely among the Hispanic subgroups. Therefore, it’s unwise to generalize too much. But here’s what HHS says it can confirm:

  • Overall, Hispanics are 40 percent more likely than non-Hispanics to die from diabetes.
  • Hispanic women are 17 times more likely to die from diabetes than non-Hispanic white women.
  • Type 2 diabetes among all Hispanic groups was nearly 17 percent for both men and women, compared to 10.2 percent for non-Hispanic whites, according to a study published by the American Diabetes Association. Within this group, prevalence varied from a high of 18.3 percent for those of Mexican descent to a low of 10.2 percent for people of South American descent. (Other Hispanic groups fell somewhere in between.)

The reasons for the high rate among certain Hispanic groups are not completely understood. Here are a few possible reasons:

  • Nearly one-third of Hispanics do not have health insurance. People who are uninsured are less likely to have a regular doctor or get preventive care, which results in poorer health overall. 
  • Hispanics who live in rural areas can have a hard time getting to a doctor. 
  • Cultural and language barriers can keep Hispanics from explaining their symptoms or understanding the doctor's advice.

Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders

Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are people who are native to, or ancestors were native to, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa and other Pacific Islands. According to HHS, this population often is grouped with Asians in medical research, and as a result, their specific health status has been hidden or unnoticed. 

In the 2000 census, the U.S. began to recognize Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders as a distinct race. Here is what is known, so far, about diabetes in people of this ancestry, according to HHS:

  • Type 2 diabetes is a growing problem throughout the Pacific Islands, although the reasons are not yet clearly known. 
  • Native Hawaiians between the ages of 19 and 35 are more than five times as likely as same-age non-Hawaiians to have diabetes. 
  • Pacific peoples have many risk factors for diabetes, including high obesity rates. 

Asian-American

Type 2 diabetes is a growing problem for Asian-Americans, according to HHS. Many experts believe that exposure to the Western lifestyle (an unhealthy diet and inactivity) is one reason for the increasing risk. Here are some facts to consider:

  • Diabetes is the fifth leading cause of death in the Asian-American population.
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  • Among Asian-Americans, Asian-Indians have the highest rates of diabetes. 
  • Japanese-, Chinese-, Filipino-, and Korean-Americans also have higher diabetes rates than non-Hispanic whites, despite having lower body weight. 

What Can I Do?

Even though you can’t change your race and ethnicity, there are some things you can do to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes. 

  • Keep a healthy weight: To see if your weight is in a healthy range, use our convenient Body Mass Index calculator.
  • Educate yourself: Learn how to count carbohydrates. Also, learn more about the glycemic index, which measures how a carbohydrate-containing food raises your blood glucose level.
  • Eat healthy meals: Focus on low-fat, well-balanced meals that are also low in carbs. Learn how to eat smart with diabetes.
  • Exercise regularly: You should commit to 2.5 hours of moderate to intense aerobic activity.

Also, include muscle-strengthening exercise on two or more days of the week. 

  • Limit your intake of alcohol to no more than one drink per day.

Knowing your personal risk for diabetes, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, can help you offset factors that are beyond your control. Make sure you see your physician if you believe your race or ethnicity, or other factors, put you at risk for this disease.

Small Steps: Exercise Reduces Your Risk.
Help prevent – or manage – diabetes with regular aerobic exercise and strength training.