A study from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences found that the rate of diabetes diagnoses soared sharply among Ontario's Chinese Canadian population over a 10-year period, while the increase in cases among their European counterparts was comparatively small. The findings were published Thursday in the journal Diabetes Care.
Study co-author Dr. Baiju Shah said the data came as a surprise, since Chinese Canadians have not historically been treated as a high risk group.
Canadians of South Asian, African or Aboriginal origin have widely been recognized as being vulnerable to diabetes, he said, adding the latest research suggests the Chinese population ought to be considered in the same light.
"I think we've shown now that the rate of new cases is going way, way up. So in a few years, the proportion of the Chinese population with diabetes is going to have caught up and exceeded that of Europeans," Shah said in a telephone interview.
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Between 1996 and 2005, they went on to track the medical histories of more than 77,000 people and sought out newly diagnosed cases of diabetes.
Canadians of European descent reported 7.8 new cases per 1,000 people per year in 1996. That number had jumped by 24 per cent to 9.7 by the study's conclusion. The number of those reported as overweight or obese had climbed to 55 per cent from 50 over that time, the study found.
While the Chinese population registered a similar five point spike in obesity rates, the numbers were noticeably lower than they were among Europeans.
Researchers found only a quarter of the Chinese population was deemed to be overweight, up from 20 per cent in 1996.
The rate of diabetes diagnosis, however, was out of proportion with obesity rates. The number of new cases soared 15-fold from 1.3 cases per 1,000 people to 19.6 over the decade.
Shah said the 10-year period of the study saw rates of diabetes in the Chinese community jump to more than double those seen among the white population.
The cause for the dramatic spike remains a mystery, Shah said, adding common wisdom in the medical community suggests certain ethnic groups are more susceptible to developing diabetes once they begin eating highly processed North American diet and leading more sedentary lifestyles.
"When people were having traditional diets and not having energy-dense foods and were not gaining weight and were sort of healthy, you didn't see the diabetes. But these genes predisposed them to really explode with diabetes once they start to adopt more westernized lifestyles," he said. "That's the theory."
The study findings should serve as a red flag for both health care practitioners and policy makers, Shah said, adding both groups need to begin accounting for the needs of Chinese Canadians in their future plans.
Those of Chinese origin may need to be the focus of more rigorous diabetes screening and more targeted prevention strategies just like their counterparts in other ethnic groups considered at higher medical risk, he said.
"We need to think about that in Chinese communities as well as we already do in South Asian communities or African-Canadian communities, and making sure we have the health-care resources available for diabetes and its complications."