Diabetes Discriminates

Lower potassium levels in African-Americans associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) A new study suggests that lower potassium levels in the blood of African-Americans may help explain why they are more likely than whites to develop type 2 diabetes.

In a study of over 2,000 African-Americans and 9,000 whites, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that potassium levels in the blood were associated with an increased risk of diabetes. On average, the African-Americans involved in the study had lower potassium levels than whites, and were twice as likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. As potassium levels among participants went down, the incidence of diabetes grew.

According to Hsin-Chieh Yeh, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and one of the study's authors, these findings do not confirm a causal relationship between potassium levels and type 2 diabetes. She says that more research is needed in order to see if an increase in potassium levels has a preventive effect on the disease.

Dr. Yeh and her colleagues found that blood potassium levels may be a factor that helps explain the racial disparity in diabetes risk. They believe it may be as important a factor as obesity, especially in light of a recent study that showed the racial disparity in diabetes prevalence has become greatest between normal-weight and overweight people rather than obese people. This evidence suggests that factors other than weight are also contributing to the risk of type 2 diabetes.

If further research shows that manipulating potassium levels helps to reduce the risk of diabetes, a simple metabolic tests administered by primary care physicians would be a cheap and easy way to prevent diabetes, says Yeh.

Type 2 diabetes affects an estimated 23.6 million people in the United States. The disease disproportionately affects African-Americans. Although it is unclear what causes this disparity, studies have pointed to different factors including socioeconomic status, diet, obesity, and genetics. Yet researchers agree that these factors do not account for the entire disparity.

The study by Yeh and colleagues is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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Review Date: 
March 2, 2011
Last Updated:
March 3, 2011