Medical investigators have tied the extraordinary rise in Type 2 diabetes in the American South to rapid economic growth between 1950 and 1980.
In new research published in the American Journal of Human Biology, Ohio State University scientists said the findings suggest children whose parents were poor — and unprepared to manage the riches of processed foods and the more sedentary life that accompanied higher incomes — face significantly increased risks for obesity, diabetes, and other weight-related health problems.
In the South, poverty was rampant for generations until industrialization took hold in the 1950s and '60s, particularly for African Americans. But the economic benefits of the new prosperity and the South's large black population — also at higher risk than whites for diabetes — help explain the region's current poorer health.
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"It's a clash between anticipated lifestyle and the lifestyle that's realized," said Richard Steckel, a professor of economics, anthropology, and history at Ohio State University. "If the thrifty phenotype hypothesis is correct, people with diabetes today should have had a socioeconomic history of moving from poverty to prosperity."
Steckel's study tracked the relationship between per-capita income growth and diabetes prevalence by state. The analysis indicated that the most dramatic improvements in household income from 1950 to 1980 were clearly associated with a higher prevalence of Type 2 diabetes, and Southern states topped both of those lists.
In many areas of the South stretching from Oklahoma to West Virginia, more than 10.6 percent of the adult population had Type 2 diabetes in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Percentages were lower in all other states, except in select portions of several states in the West and in pockets of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
"You can probably identify the people most at risk for diabetes based on their socioeconomic history, and those are the ones clinicians should target," he said.
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