Research has found that type 2 diabetes is widespread among Native American populations, with as many as half of the adults in some tribes having the disease. The National Institutes of Health estimates that approximately 15% of Native Americans in the United States have the disease. They are also 2.6 times more prone to have diagnosed type 2 diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. The latest figures painted a very different picture from the early part of the 19th century, when health surveys from Southwestern tribes found only 1 documented case of diabetes, said Donald Warne, MD, a clinical professor in the School of Health Management and Policy at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business.

Environmental changes, more than genetics, are responsible for the epidemic, Dr. Warne claims. During the 1920s and 1930s, rivers in the Southwest were dammed up to make way for large cities, wiping out traditional farming for tribal communities. Fish, game, and farm foods were replaced with government commodities.

"Focusing on genetics is a mistake. It's a way to disempower people, making it seem fatalistic that you have to get a disease. We have the power to prevent it," he stressed. Dr. Warne said that poverty and inadequate funding are the main obstacles to preventing and effectively treating diabetes in the Native American populations.