U conference to address high diabetes rates among minorities

by Sam Kean

It crept up slowly on Minnesota’s population, climbing the death lists each year as blood vessels hardened and depression deepened.

Diabetes might be overlooked when naming serious health risks, but officials struggling to control the disease know how devastating it has been among Minnesota’s minority population.

State health officials expect about 150 health care providers and community organizers to address “The Changing Face of Diabetes in Minnesota: Meeting the Diabetes Needs of Culturally Diverse Populations” today at the Earl Brown Center on the St. Paul campus.

The sixth annual conference will focus on providing solutions to the disparity of treatment and access to health care among various minorities, whose incidence of diabetes ranges from two to six times higher than the general population.

Most common among these groups is Type-II diabetes – also known as adult-onset diabetes – which develops as the body gradually loses its ability to burn fuel properly. The results are often deadly.

By the time diabetes is diagnosed, “you can rest assured they have heart disease,” said School of Nursing professor Felicia Hodge.

Blindness, kidney problems and even amputations of lower limbs are common too, Hodge said.

Quality of life can also be diminished – diabetes has been linked to obesity, and often those who receive treatment have the fatalistic attitude: “I’m still going to get diabetes, so why even try?”

Hodge treats Plains Indians and emphasizes solutions within their cultural framework. Talking circles, for example, a traditional form of communication among Plains Indians, are one effective way to instill traditional diets and better eating habits, she noted.

Abrupt changes in diet and a lack of physical activity are the most cited causes of diabetes, but conference speaker and Regions Hospital associate professor Kathleen Culhane-Pera said mental illness can play a role in its development as well.

Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder from life in warring countries, and difficulties adjusting to a new culture have all been linked with diabetes, she said. While the cause-effect relationship – whether mental illness causes diabetes, or vice versa – remains unclear, treating both mental and physical symptoms is important to controlling the disease.

Culhane-Pera works mainly with Hmong patients but will open the conference speaking about the prevalence of diabetes among Hispanics, blacks and American Indians.

One trend she and others have noticed is the time line for developing Type-II diabetes has shrunk – normally the disease takes decades to develop, but those afflicted lately seem to be younger. Some children have even been diagnosed – a fact that won’t help cap diabetes’s mortality rates.

The conference begins at 7:45 a.m. and runs until 4:30 p.m., including large presentations, smaller discussions groups and an American Indian Round Dance following lunch.


Sam Kean encourages comments at [email protected]