Diabetes increase linked to change
By Dave Yasvinski
Recent research conducted on the Sandy Lake reserve of northwestern Ontario has revealed alarming levels of diabetes within the population.
Western professor Stewart Harris and a colleague from a research institute in Toronto, Bernard Zinman, found that approximately 26 per cent of the 1,600 residents of Sandy Lake demonstrated symptoms of type II diabetes. Unlike type I diabetes that generally develops at an early age, this form of diabetes can emerge at a later age as a result of obesity, inactivity and poor eating habits, Harris said.
"We think the diabetes was caused by the combination of the interaction of genetic susceptibility, plus major changes in the environment. They have gone from a semi-nomadic existence with a diet low in fat to a diet high in fat. They have gone from high activity to low activity."
A lot of these changes had to do with the introduction of welfare, he added. Before this, people had to learn how to live off the land and this kept them active.
This form of diabetes is causing concern for other reasons as well, Harris said. "We normally see this type in an aging population, now we are seeing it in kids of eight[-years old]."
Complications from type II diabetes can lead to problems with the kidneys, feet, eyes and heart. "People are dying of heart attacks and kidney failure is skyrocketing," he said.
Harris initially realized what was occurring at Sandy Lake several years ago and returned with funding from the National Institute of Health and the Ontario Ministry of Health plus the assistance of Zinman to explore the problem.
"We collaborated with the community. First to find out how much diabetes there was, then to develop a community-based strategy."
Harris said this intervention strategy involved educating people on how serious their problem was, visiting at-risk families and teaching them how to shop healthier, helping the grocery store develop healthy alternatives and finally, educating children at an early age about the causes of diabetes.
"Lessons learned here can be applied to any population," Harris said. "Diabetes can be related to obesity, inactivity and poor dieting."
Type II diabetes is also known as non-insulin dependent diabetes and as the name suggests, does not generally require insulin injections, Harris said. "For the most part, this kind of diabetes can theoretically be controlled through changes in lifestyle or pills." These pills have the ability to stimulate insulin activity, he explained.
Harris said they have now completed phase I of their plan for Sandy Lake. Phase II involves finding more funding and returning to the reserve to follow up on the interventions they have started.
As to whether or not diabetes will be cured in his lifetime, Harris is optimistic. "With the pace of discoveries that are going on, yes, I think that it is a possibility."