Nearly 1 million Latinas aren’t aware that they are at risk of developing diabetes. Many will likely not get the preventive or other care they need because they won’t visit a physician or medical clinic, where they could take a simple screening test for the disease.
To help prevent the spread of diabetes, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers resources to help women of Latin American ancestry and all Americans reduce their risk or to find the most effective treatment.
About 5.5 million Latinas have elevated fasting plasma glucose, and of those, nearly 4 million weren’t told by a health care professional that they were at risk for diabetes, according to a study in the March 2014 edition of Hispanic Health Care International.
The study, “Latinas With Elevated Fasting Plasma Glucose: An Analysis Using NHANES 2009-2010 Data," was co-authored by Helene Clayton-Jeter, O.D., an optometrist and health programs manager at FDA. NHANES is the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which assesses the health and nutritional status of U.S. adults and children.
Fasting plasma glucose is the level of sugar in the blood after a fast of at least eight hours, indicating how the body processes sugar. For people with diabetes, their glucose levels may remain high even after they haven’t eaten for hours, says Bruce Schneider, M.D., an endocrinologist at FDA. This is an indication that a patient either has diabetes or is in danger of developing the disease.
Why are so many Latinas at risk of developing diabetes? In addition to susceptibility, many people are not routinely visiting their primary care physician or gynecologist and aren’t aware of their diabetes risk, according to the study. Thus, they aren’t getting the diabetes screening and medical care they need. Early screening and proper care can delay or prevent diabetes in at-risk people.
Overall, diabetes affects nearly 26 million Americans (8.3% of the population). In addition, about 79 million adults (35%) are at risk of developing diabetes. According to the study, there’s a significantly higher proportion of undiagnosed diabetes among Mexican American adults (34.6%) than non-Hispanic whites (17.1%) and non-Hispanic blacks (15.7%).
Detection Is Key
The researchers studied almost 1,500 Hispanic, non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic black women. They found that fear of and cultural misperceptions about diabetes put Latinas at considerable risk for developing long-term complications of diabetes.
“Early detection helps even the playing field,” says Clayton-Jeter. “As doctors, we need to talk with our patient about diabetes no matter what she is coming in for. Doctors shouldn’t be so focused on the chief complaint that we forget to look at the whole person. We should also look into the whole family, not only because diabetes runs in families but because families live together, eat together and are connected in so many ways.”
The screening test involves the taking of a small blood sample, which is a routine procedure, says Schneider.
“It’s a very easy test to conduct, and it should be part of a routine physical exam – even if you are perfectly healthy,” he says. “Like getting your blood pressure measured, this test is very important because diabetes is often a silent destroyer of multiple organs.”
Complications of diabetes include heart attack, stroke, blindness and kidney disease. Normalizing blood glucose levels through diet, exercise and medications can help prevent many of those complications.
To increase the rate of diabetes detection in Latinas, the study recommends making the test more convenient—via mobile health vans, places of worship and other non-traditional sites. “We need to break down barriers to access so more women can take this simple finger-prick test outside a doctor’s office—at pharmacies, gyms, health centers, dental offices and eye clinics,” Clayton-Jeter says.
Many Latinas don’t see a doctor until they develop symptoms or are in a crisis, she says, adding that optometrists detect many cases of undiagnosed diabetes.
“That’s because when your sugar level is too low or elevated, it affects your vision. And when people aren’t seeing clearly, they typically first go to the eye doctor to seek an eyeglass prescription to correct this,” she says. “Diabetes can be silent. There is usually no pain. The first obvious sign of it is often blurred vision.”
Other warning signs of diabetes include increased thirst, frequent urination, sores that don’t heal (usually on the hands and feet) and unexplained weight loss. For women, signs can include an increase in yeast infections and other gynecological issues not associated with bacteria, she says.
FDA has created tools on www.fda.gov for Latinas and everyone to inform to public, and to prevent and treat diabetes. They include:
- Office of Women’s Health diabetes page
- MedWatch, which includes product safety alerts via email and/or text message
“Most patients with diabetes die of cardiovascular disease, not the diabetes,” says Clayton-Jeter.