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UMass researchers target diabetes in Lawrence Latinos

December 17, 2011
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A relatively inexpensive diabetes prevention program that included a Spanish soap opera to dramatize health concerns helped to lower blood sugar levels among Latinos, a group that is significantly more vulnerable to the disease, according to a new study by UMass Medical School researchers.

The scientists tested their diabetes prevention program in Lawrence, where 60 percent of the population is Latino and the prevalence of diabetes is estimated to be nearly twice that among non-Hispanic white populations in Massachusetts.

The study participants were all overweight and faced elevated risks for developing diabetes. They also struggled with other challenges — nearly 60 percent did not complete high school and fewer than half were employed.

The researchers found that after one year, the 150 people enrolled in the program lost, on average, only about 2.5 pounds more than a similar group not in the program, but the drop in their blood sugar was significantly greater than in the control group, according to the study published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study involved participants at risk for type 2 diabetes, which is the most common form of the disease, and is characterized by an inability to control blood sugar levels, which can over time damage blood vessels and nerves, often leading to a cascade of other health issues, including kidney failure, vision problems, and poor circulation in the legs and feet.

While the study wasn’t designed to show whether fewer people developed diabetes, the authors say that the reduction in blood sugar levels means the intervention may help ward off type 2 diabetes.

The blood sugar improvements recorded in the Lawrence study were on par with levels seen in another larger, more expensive prevention program in which participants lost, on average, much more weight, around 12 pounds, the scientists said.

“This suggests that even more modest degrees of weight loss are worthwhile,� said Dr. Ira Ockene, a professor and director of preventive cardiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the study’s lead author.

The Lawrence study, funded by a $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, used individual and group counseling and education sessions about healthy nutrition such as portion control, increasing consumption of whole grains, and reducing the amounts of salt and saturated fats. Participants also were encouraged to increase their physical activity by boosting the number of steps they took each day, and were given pedometers to keep track.

Everything was tailored to a Latino culture, including a diabetes education lesson done in the form of a novella, because watching soap operas is a popular activity for Latinos, the scientists said.

“You have to meet people where they are at,� Ockene said. “If you give people dietary advice, it has to fit into what they are used to eating and doing.�

Ockene’s team is not sure why the study’s participants showed such a significant drop in blood sugar levels, given their modest weight loss, but theorize that some ethnic groups, such as the Dominican and Puerto Rican participants enrolled in the study, may be more sensitive to the effects of weight loss.

Other studies have indicated that some ethnic groups are more likely to become diabetic with weight gain.

“It may be because of the stresses in their lives [this group] is more sensitive to becoming diabetic and more sensitive to weight improvement,� Ockene said.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.

Article source: http://www.boston.com/Boston/dailydose/2011/12/umass-researchers-target-diabetes-lawrence-latinos/qJNrBgmTi28C4qdWfV0qXI/index.html

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