The study’s findings predict a huge burden of medical costs and physical disability ahead in this century, as the disease increases a person’s risk of heart attack, kidney failure, blindness and some infections.
“This study confirms the suspicion of many that diabetes has become a global epidemic,” said Frank Hu, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s School of Public Health who was not involved in the research. “It has the potential to overwhelm the health systems of many countries, especially developing countries.”
Worldwide, the prevalence of diabetes in men older than 25 rose from 8.3 percent in 1980 to 9.8 percent in 2008. For women older than 25, it increased from 7.5 percent to 9.2 percent.
“This is likely to be one of the defining features of global health in the coming decades,” said Majid Ezzati, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at Imperial College London, who headed the study. “There’s simply the magnitude of the problem. And then there’s the fact that unlike high blood pressure and high cholesterol, we don’t really have good treatments for diabetes.”
There are two types of diabetes, a metabolic ailment in which the body is unable to rapidly or adequately move sugar out of the bloodstream and into tissues after a meal. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease that comes on in childhood and requires that a person take insulin shots to survive. Type 2 accounts for 90 percent of cases and generally comes on after age 25. It is controlled by insulin, pills and, in some cases, weight loss and exercise.
The disease is most common in the islands of the South Pacific — Oceania — where an explosion of severe obesity, coupled with a genetic proclivity for diabetes, has driven diabetes prevalence to 25 percent in men and 32 percent in women in some places. The Gulf States also have very high rates, with Saudi Arabia ranking No. 3, Jordan No. 8 and Kuwait No. 10 in diabetes among men in 2008.
Among high-income countries, the United States had the steepest rise over the past three decades for men and the second-steepest rise for women (behind Spain). In 2008, 12.6 percent of American men and 9.1 percent of women had the disease.
China and India, however, are the nations that will be most responsible for what happens over the next several decades. Together, they account for 40 percent of people with diabetes today. In contrast, 10 percent of the world’s total live in the United States and Russia.
Barry M. Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina who has done research in China, said the increase in diabetes there has just begun. That’s because diabetes lags behind inactivity and obesity, both of which have increased during China’s economic boom.