Congresswoman Diana DeGette stood in the workout room Monday at Denver Indian Health and Family Services to announce legislation aimed at curbing the devastating rates of diabetes in communities of color.
“According to Centers for Disease Control nearly half – nearly half – of all minority children born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in their lifetime,” said DeGette. “These disparities need to be addressed immediately.”
Degette added that 16 percent of Native Americans have diabetes, 13 percent of African Americans, 12 percent of Latinos, and 9 percent of Asians compared to 7 percent of whites.
The theories on why minorities are roughly twice as likely to get diabetes as their white counterparts range from the economic to the social, from concerns about food deserts where fresh produce is scarce, to cultural and linguistic barriers that keep people from visiting clinics even as warning signs pile up. Genetics may also play a role, though DeGette said there is still a lot of research to be done on that.
If DeGette’s bill passes, it will trigger a new federal study of why diabetes impacts communities of color at such high rates. The legislation would also expand CDC outreach and education efforts on the issue and create more positions for physicians and healthcare providers of color to work on diabetes in the community. It would also fund programs, like one run out of Indian Health, that help people fight and live with diabetes.
This time last year, Roy Willis, a 57-year-old black man from Denver, stared at a closet of new clothes he was too large to wear. An active man, Willis had started to gain weight drastically, and he knew something was up.
“I weighed like 300 pounds, and I couldn’t breathe, so I decided to go to the doctor’s and find out what was the deal,” Willis said.
The doctors told Willis that he was a hair’s breadth from a Type II Diabetes diagnosis.
“I went down memory lane. I was thinking about my parents,” said Willis. “My dad had diabetes. It runs in both sides of the family. I had cousins that passed away from it. I think it’s mainly what they ate. We weren’t trained to watch what we were eating. You just ate whatever there was to eat.”
Though he was in shock at first, Willis said he quickly got with the program. He was willing to do just about anything to avoid a diagnosis endemic to his community.
“I had to face reality and start dealing with it,” said Willis. “That’s when I got on the bike, the treadmill, the strength training.”
Willis jumped into first one and then another diabetes prevention program at Denver’s Center for African American Health. There, Willis said he learned to eat smaller portions and cut back on sodium. He got active and switched from bacon and eggs to fruits and vegetables. Just under a year later he has lost 159 pounds and successfully avoided the disease.
Willis said the changes really hit home when the heavy snows fell this winter and he went outside to shovel.
“I didn’t just do my sidewalk, I went down the street, I did everyone’s sidewalk,” he laughed. “I just had all this energy. I just couldn’t stand still. And my neighbors, they all looking at me, but they all enjoyed it. I would never have did everybody’s sidewalk before. I would have done mine and that’s it.”
Dealing with diabetes
For Theresa Halsey, a 61-year old Hunkpapa Lakota woman from Boulder, the warning sign was a certain blurriness on her computer screen at work.
“My eyes…I couldn’t actually focus … I kept getting infections. And my skin, my skin was just super itchy,” said Halsey. “I was really overweight, almost 200 pounds.”
That was in 2001, when Halsey learned that she had Type II Diabetes. Now Halsey treks down from Boulder to Denver Indian Health and Family Services, which runs a “culturally competent” diabetes prevention and treatment program.
“I’ve lost 30 pounds and kept if off,” Halsey said, standing before the treadmills and bicycles at the facility’s gym.
“A lot of what we’re learning is how to return to our traditional foods,” Halsey added. “Across the country we [native people] don’t have fresh fruits and vegetables in our stores…. But up in South Dakota we’re rebuilding our buffalo herds so we can eat buffalo meat. It’s in our genes to eat that, it really helps.”
Ending the cycle
In Colorado, some 7 percent of all adults over age 20 have diabetes with the highest rates occurring in the southwest portion of the state. The CDC estimates that nationwide two people die of the disease every five minutes.
Though her efforts to pass this legislation failed last year, DeGette said she currently has high hopes for her bill. It’s supported by members of the diabetes caucus as well as the Tri-Caucus, a coalition of the Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and the Black Caucus.
“Type 2 diabetes is an epidemic in this country,” said DeGette. “If we don’t act in a systematic national way to deal with this epidemic, it’s going to have tremendous personal costs and tremendous financial costs.”
Rep. DeGette with Halsey. Image by Tessa Cheek.