Harvard Women's Health Watch

In Brief: Black women may be more vulnerable to insulin resistance

In Brief

Black women may be more vulnerable to insulin resistance

African American women of normal weight are at greater risk for insulin resistance than their white or Hispanic counterparts, according to data presented by Wake Forest University School of Medicine researchers at an Endocrine Society meeting in Boston in June 2006.

Insulin is a hormone that helps move glucose from the blood to the cells, where it's used for energy or stored for future use. Insulin resistance occurs when the cells become less responsive to this hormone. The pancreas makes more insulin to compensate, but resistance continues, leading to a buildup of glucose in the blood. Insulin resistance is a feature of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that includes hypertension, obesity, and high cholesterol levels and is associated with heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

The researchers analyzed data from the Insulin Resistance Atherosclerosis Study (IRAS), an ongoing investigation of the relationship between insulin resistance and atherosclerosis in 1,625 black, Hispanic, and white Americans. Among obese participants in all groups, the rate of insulin resistance was about the same. But investigators were surprised to discover that nearly half (47%) of the black women with body mass indexes (BMIs) under 25 (normal is 18.5–24.9) had insulin resistance. By contrast, less than 20% of Hispanic and white women with BMIs under 25 were insulin resistant. Obesity is a well-known contributor to insulin resistance, but no previous research has isolated race apart from excessive weight as a factor in the condition.

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