According to the Office of Minority Health, API populations are at higher risk for diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and have been found to have a high prevalence of chronic pulmonary disease, Hepatitis B, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis.
While academic achievement and income levels are common social measures of achievement, general health should also be considered when determining the collective success of a community, especially here in the Northwest where local statistics reveal a few more reasons APIAs need to rethink the issue of health.
“Our data supports that our patients are at risk for diabetes and hypertension and it sort of defies the stereotypical healthy, fit Asian,” says Michael McKee, Health Services Director of the International Community Health Services (ICHS) in Seattle’s International District. With the mission of providing culturally and linguistically appropriate health services to the public, ICHS offers its facility to an ethnically diverse population with varied medical coverage, ranging from uninsured patients to clients carrying private providers. However, with the majority of clients from ICHS being APIAs and recent immigrants from Asia, their findings in diabetes and hypertension rates appear to coincide with research findings done on a national scale.
According to the Asian American Diabetes Initiative, “Asian Americans are more likely than Caucasians to have diabetes” and the organization has found evidence to suggest that second-and third-generation APIs have higher rates of the disease than Asians in the respective home countries. And, in general, API groups are still found to have higher rates than their Caucasian counterparts, suggesting the possibility of “a strong role in genetics in developing diabetes.”
McKee says, “There is some evidence to suggest that Asians carry body fat in the torso and the body area which could imply a genetic predisposition to lead to diabetes.” Additionally, McKee speculates that traditional API foods could also affect these rates.
“Some of the traditional foods are high in fats and sodium and changing how you eat is probably one of the most difficult things to do in anyone’s life. I think part of it is also that there is some of the things they have eaten traditionally may have been reserved for celebrations, but now they are linked to an identity and then it’s much more challenging to change.”
ICHS Communications Director Christine Loredo adds an affirmation to that hypothesis by using experience from her own multicultural upbringing.
“I’m Filipino and I grew up with a lot of these foods,” said Loredo. “Things in the Philippines that are considered special occasion party foods are much more readily available in the United States. Food is important to transmitting culture and feeling connected to your culture in a lot of ways…but it makes a difference eating it once every couple of months versus eating it every weekend.”
Both McKee and Loredo point out that there are always intervening variables that can skew the statistics. For example, in demographic data collection, API groups are often grouped into one homogenized category, when, in fact, each ethnic API group have their own distinct experience and their own rates of chronic diseases. For example, Vietnamese women are seven times more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer than their Caucasian counterparts. Awareness of such extreme differences, including within races, can help to identify the cause and institute a change.
“Asian and Pacific Islanders often get lumped together, yet their experiences in our healthcare system, the reason they are here in our country, the diets and cultural beliefs are just so different, that it often masks other disparities,” McKee said. “The first step we can take is to recognize the disparities between different Asian and Pacific Islander groups.”
This recognition will require a shift in society’s mindset. Understanding there are differences at this level will allow clarity for the health of all – regardless of ethnicity. As a nation, the United States eats more processed foods and exercises less than any other developed nation in the world. This trend causes alarming rates of preventable diseases. APIA’s possible genetic predisposition for developing some chronic diseases along with the changing diet and lifestyle of APIAs suggests the tremendous impact of passivity and having poor knowledge of one’s health. If change is to happen for the health of all – it must start with one’s own.