diabetes, obesity

Post-Pandemic Diabetes Rates Concern Medical Experts

Experts say there needs to be a broader and more substantive conversation about the obesity connection to diabetes.

According to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 40% of Americans are pre-diabetic, which means that your blood sugar levels are elevated but have not reached the level to be categorized as type-2 diabetes. The CDC also says that around 10% of Americans have Type-2 diabetes, which means that approximately half of Americans have some form of diabetes. The Mayo Clinic says that common symptoms of pre-diabetes can range from excessive hunger, excessive thirst, and fatigue to frequent urination or weight gain. Still, many people are asymptomatic and thus unaware.

Fortune reports that obesity is a leading risk factor for diabetes, so much so that the statistics on obesity mirror the statistics on diabetes. The CDC says that around 42% of Americans were considered obese as of March 2020, and it is projected that by the year 2030, half of Americans will be obese. Dr. Nisha Patel, an obesity medicine doctor based in San Francisco, told Fortune that the millions of people in America who are unaware that they have diabetes or pre-diabetes are “like ticking time bombs.”

Obesity, while already a public health concern in America, was only accelerated by the conditions that the COVID-19 pandemic created. Dr. Disha Narang, an endocrinologist and obesity medicine doctor at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital and frequent collaborator with Patel, told Fortune, “I hear stories all the time that things were stable, then 2020 hit, and ‘I gained 50 pounds after that.’”

Narang added, “People’s activity changed a lot. The stressors were a lot different. The way we responded to stressors was a lot different. People often turned to food in times of stress—all of that combined.”

A 2023 study published in JAMA Network Open says that new diagnoses of type 2 diabetes jumped up 62% and type 1 diabetes diagnoses among American youths increased by 17% after the pandemic began, a strong sign that the pandemic and diabetes are linked. Furthering this association is data from studies that estimate between 1% to 4% of people who contracted COVID-19 were diagnosed with diabetes in the months after their infection; 1%, in this case, would represent more than 3 million people, which is quite significant. 

This development of young people contracting diabetes is concerning for Patel, who told Fortune, “It’s really quite disturbing because that’s an even longer time of exposure their body has to deal with. The indication is that more people will experience more complications at a younger age than they have previously. “The domino effect it creates is huge. It’s astronomical what the consequences can be.” 

According to Northwestern Medicine, Black American adults are 60% more likely than white Americans to get diagnosed with diabetes, and in 2012, Diabetes Journals said that 18% of Black people under 20 years old either had undiagnosed or diagnosed diabetes. Diabetes among the Black community has long been researched and studied, and the consensus is that since many Black people live in under-resourced areas, the socio-economic conditions of Black people put them at a higher risk for diabetes than white people. 

Dr. Kimbra Bell, a physician at Northwestern Internal Medicine, told Northwestern Medicine, “Our Black and Brown communities are more likely to have an abundance of fast food restaurants and markets stocked with unhealthy processed foods as opposed to our white counterparts, where there tends to be a greater number of grocery stores and markets with an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Dr. Bell said. “A lack of access to healthy, nutritious foods results in poorer health outcomes.”

Bell continued, “Deeply rooted social inequities that have existed since times of slavery play a huge role in the health disparities that are prevalent amongst our Black and Brown communities,” she said. “Every individual deserves an equal opportunity to try and live a healthy, full, productive life. When equal opportunity is not given to a class of persons based on the color of their skin, this leads to social inequities and health disparities.”

According to Bell, the inability to afford quality medical care and cost-effective prescriptions is another reason for the elevated rates of diabetes among Black Americans.

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