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Diabetes Among Indigenous People Not From Their Genetic Heritage?

Apr 24, 2007

The high rate of diabetes among indigenous people is not due to their genetic heritage, according to a recently published study. The study was authored by Dr Yin Paradies, an epidemiologist from Darwin’s Menzies School of Health Research along with two researchers from the United States. It shows that the high rates of diabetes among indigenous people across the globe are rooted in social disadvantage rather than a genetic pre-disposition specific to indigenous populations.

"Around the world, indigenous people suffer from diabetes at 2-5 times the rate of non-indigenous people", says Dr Paradies.
"There is a common misconception that diabetes is ‘in the genes’ for Indigenous people. This idea stems from the ‘thrifty gene hypothesis’ which proposes that cycles of feast and famine in indigenous societies created a gene that was very efficient at using nutrients. According to this hypothesis, such efficiency combined with a modern affluent and sedentary lifestyle leads to obesity and diabetes among indigenous people."

"Although there is certainly a genetic component to diabetes that affects people throughout society, the idea that indigenous people have a ‘thrifty gene’ is dispelled by our research which shows that when it comes to diabetes, genes are no more important for indigenous people than for anyone else."

"Instead, it is aspects of the social environment that are responsible for the high rates of diabetes among indigenous people. Poor diet, reduced physical activity, stress, low birth weight and other factors associated with poverty all contribute to the high rate of diabetes among indigenous people", Dr Paradies said.

"Our study shows that by focusing on genes, researchers miss the more significant and alterable environmental causes of diabetes," he said.

Montoya said that in order to gain a better understanding of the causes of type 2 diabetes, future research efforts will require interdisciplinary teams that assess social, historical and environmental factors as carefully as researchers have studied the genetic factors.

Yin Paradies, an epidemiologist at Australia’s Menzies School of Health Research and another study co-author, said factors associated with poverty, such as poor diet, reduced physical activity, stress and low birth weight, all contribute to diabetes in minority groups.

The study found that it is virtually impossible for geneticists to define ethnicity and race in strictly scientific terms — historic, political and social factors inevitably influence their definition of genetic groups, according to Montoya.
"For indigenous people, diabetes will only be tackled by addressing poverty and social disadvantage".


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