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Diabetes and obesity are on the rise in young adults, a study says

Obesity in young adult Americans rose from 33% to 41% over the timeframe of the study.
M. Spencer Green
Obesity in young adult Americans rose from 33% to 41% over the timeframe of the study.

Diabetes and obesity — two risk factors for heart disease — are on the rise among young adults in the U.S., according to a newly published study of about 13,000 people ages 20 to 44 years old.

The prevalence of diabetes climbed from 3% to 4.1%; obesity shot up from 32.7% to 40.9%, based on the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Sunday, which uses data from 2009 to 2020.

The results show "a high and rising burden of most cardiovascular risk factors in young US adults, especially for Black, Hispanic, and Mexican American individuals," said the authors, Rishi K. Wadhera, Rahul Aggarwal and Robert W. Yeh of Harvard Medical School and Karen E. Joynt Maddox of the Washington University School of Medicine.

The authors of the study said their findings highlight the need to step up public health and clinical intervention efforts that are focused on preventative measures for young adults.

In addition to heart disease, the trends indicate more young adults are at a greater risk of heart attack, stroke and heart failure — potentially fatal and lifetime health concerns, according to the study.

Screening younger age groups for diabetes could mean earlier diagnoses and quicker treatment, the authors propose.

"Given the high rates of diabetes complications in the US, identifying and mitigating risk in younger adults could have downstream implications for cardiovascular health as well as other diabetes-related illnesses such as kidney disease, infection, and cancer," they say.

The study also looked at overall hypertension rates, which saw a slight increase but did not reach statistical significance.

But Mexican American adults faced a significant rise in diabetes and hypertension, the authors said, and other Hispanic adults experienced a significant rise in hypertension as well. High-sodium and ultra-processed foods, in addition to socioeconomic barriers that make it harder to access healthy foods, likely drove the rise, according to the authors.

"Community-informed, culturally appropriate public health efforts to address the rise in diabetes among Mexican American adults are needed," they said.

The prevalence of hypertension in young Black adults was "more than 2 times higher than in all other racial and ethnic groups, with no improvement over the study period," the researchers found. This can in part lead to high rates of stroke, heart failure and hypertensive kidney disease, they said.

The study's authors pointed to structural racism as the likely root of social inequities driving the trends among Black people. The authors recommended ways to address the health gaps, including: pharmacist-led interventions in Black barbershops, large-scale health system initiatives that screen for and treat uncontrolled blood pressure for young Black adults, greater access to primary care, and more green space for regular exercise.

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