Rates of diabetes have jumped 15-fold for Chinese Canadians: study

TORONTO – Chinese Canadians may have lower rates of obesity, but diabetes in this population jumped 15-fold within a decade, according to a new study that documents the dramatic spike.

Researchers at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences say they noticed anecdotal evidence pointing to this increase of new Chinese diabetes patients, so they looked at a decade’s worth of data.

In 1996, 1.3 per 1,000 Chinese Canadians was diagnosed with diabetes – jump to 2005, and the rate climbed to 19.6 people per 1,000. That’s a near 1,400 per cent increase.

“That’s a really enormous increase over a short period of time, and these are just new cases,” study co-author Dr. Baiju Shah told Global News.

Shah is a researcher at ICES, an endocrinologist at Sunnybrook Hospital and works within the University of Toronto’s department of medicine.

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“Even after we adjusted for age, gender, and socioeconomic status, there was still an increased risk,” he said, noting that when the scientists adjusted for weight, the risk became even stronger among overweight and obese Chinese Canadians.

To compare, the European population logged a 24 per cent increase. In 1996, about 7.8 new patients were diagnosed with the condition per 1,000. By 2005, it was 9.7.

The study was based on 77,000 Ontario residents who self-identified as either European or Chinese descent in Statistics Canada surveys.

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Shah says that the perception that Chinese Canadians appear to be less affected by diabetes compared to other groups is not necessarily true based on these findings.

First Nations, South Asians – from India and Pakistan, for example, those of Middle Eastern descent and the Pacific Islands usually have the highest rates of diabetes. Historically, Chinese Canadians were one of the only groups less afflicted.

The jump in diabetes among the Chinese population in Canada appears to provide a snapshot of a trend in global health, Shah said.

Diabetes in Canada and worldwide

Across the board, diabetes diagnoses have been going up in Canada and around the world as obesity rates rise.

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“We need to, as a society and as individuals, be aware of this as a major issue that’s going to have major public health consequences, economic consequences and personal health consequences,” Shah said.

“It’s going to mean that diabetes is a chronic disease and all of the complications that come from it – heart disease, kidney disease, blindness – are going to keep increasing,” he warned.

In Canada, the rates increase from West to East – lowest in British Columbia and highest in Newfoundland.

Changing lifestyles from eating more processed foods to working at sedentary jobs are factors at play, Shah said.

Rates of diabetes are also escalating in China, especially in urban regions, like Shanghai or Beijing.

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It’s unclear why diabetes jumped so prominently within Chinese Canadians, though.

“We can speculate that Chinese Canadians are predisposed to diabetes but it was hidden before with a traditional diet or better lifestyle choices and it’s being unmasked now by a more Westernized lifestyle,” Shah suggested.

“But that’s just speculation. We don’t know.”

The findings could alert policy-makers and public health officials to be vigilant in screening for diabetes within the Chinese community and to offer culturally specific prevention plans or outreach, Shah hopes.

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His next steps are to identify the culprits leading to these dramatic rates of diabetes in Chinese Canadian populations.

“We need to understand why this is happening and what can be done to stop this,” Shah said.

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His team’s complete findings were published Thursday in the journal Diabetes Care.

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