Air Pollution, and How You Get Around Your Community, Could Play a Role in Diabetes Risk

More than 37 million Americans are living with diabetes, with at least 90% impacted by type 2. Risk factors for this form of the disease include having a close relative with type 2 diabetes, having a history of gestational diabetes, and being overweight. A recent study has identified two other possible risk factors, for people living in urban areas.

Researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) recently examined environmental factors that may influence the development of diabetes. They used data from the county-level Environmental Quality Index to compare air quality and transportation with diabetes statistics in urban counties throughout the United States.

Vehicles drive along a highway

The findings, published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society, show that higher levels of air pollution were linked with higher diabetes prevalence, as were reduced public transportation usage and lower walkability. The researchers say their study adds more evidence to the link between the environment and diabetes risk.

Margaret Weiss, lead author and sixth year MSTP student at UIC, explains, “The findings suggest that policy promoting green space, better transportation and walkable communities could be a way to reduce overall diabetes prevalence within large populations. By addressing multiple factors at once, you will have a larger reduction in risk compared to if you just stress one area.”

The research involved data from nearly 1,500 counties across the United States taken between 2006 and 2012. Data points included transportation, air quality, and diabetes prevalence and control. The team focused on urban areas and also examined how these factors impacted different racial and ethnic groups.

Bus stop sign on road

The findings showed that increased particulate matter air pollution and nitrogen dioxide, lower public transport usage, and lower walkability were linked with higher diabetes prevalence and reduced diabetes control. These issues were also often worse in counties with higher minority populations. The researchers say this suggests these factors may play a role in health disparities related to diabetes.

The team believes their findings should spur further research on how environmental policies and urban planning could improve metabolic health.

Dr. Robert Sargis, study co-author and endocrinologist who studies how environmental pollutants contribute to metabolic diseases, says, “Taking people out of their cars and getting them to use active transportation is a form of physical activity that I don’t think we address clinically, because in part, that’s often not a choice. It’s dependent upon the ecosystem in which someone lives. But maybe this is further justification for talking to our patients about what opportunities their neighborhoods offer and how they might choose forms of transportation that promote health.”

Two women walk by public transit options

To read more of the study, click here.

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