Important note: AACHAC is in the process of updating this health information. Please check back with us soon for the latest information. (6/13/2014)

What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life. The cause of diabetes is unknown, although both genetics and environmental factors such as obesity and lack of exercise appear to play roles.

Diabetes is a killing disease in the African American community, but a disease that may be controlled, according to James R. Gavin III, MD, chair of the American Diabetes Association’s African American Program. “By keeping fit, eating right and getting regular exercise, we can decrease our risk for diabetes quite substantially,” he said. “This is a disease about which we can do a great deal, but only when those affected are informed and empowered to take the kind of control of this disease that is now possible.

“Unfortunately, what we don’t know right now is why our community is such a primary target.” Since the 1960s, the number of African Americans with diabetes has tripled, leading to a near-epidemic in a community already twice as likely than the general population to have the disease, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Diabetes currently is the fourth-leading cause of death by disease among African Americans and is the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure and amputation. While diabetes affects nearly 3 million African Americans — half of those with the disease don’t know it.

Different Types of Diabetes

  • Type 1 diabetes. An autoimmune disease in which the body does not produce any insulin. It occurs most often in children and young adults. People with type 1 diabetes require daily insulin injections to live. About 5 to 10 percent of people with diabetes have this form.
  • Type 2 diabetes. The most common, is a metabolic disorder resulting from the body’s inability to make enough, or properly use, insulin. It occurs most often in older people. African Americans are 1.7 times as likely to have type 2 diabetes as the general population. An estimated 2.3 million African Americans, or almost 11 percent, have diabetes.
  • Gestational diabetes.Develops in 2 to 5 percent of all pregnancies, but disappears when the pregnancy is over. However, women who have gestational diabetes are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
  • Other types of diabetes result from specific genetic syndromes, surgery, drugs, malnutrition, infections and other illness.


  • African Americans experience higher rates of at least three of the complications of diabetes:
    • Diabetic retinopathy is what happens when the small blood vessels in the eye are weakened by diabetes. African Americans are twice as likely to have diabetes-related blindness.
    • Diabetes is the most frequent cause of leg amputations not resulting from accidents. Among people with diabetes, African Americans are 1.5 to 2.5 times more likely to suffer from lower limb amputations.
    • African Americans are 2.5 to 5.6 times more likely to suffer from kidney disease with more than 4,000 new cases annually of renal disease requiring a kidney transplant or regular dialysis.

Warning Signs

Type 1

  • Frequent urination
  • Unusual thirst
  • Extreme hunger
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Irritability

Type 2

  • Any of the type 1 symptoms
  • Frequent infections
  • Blurred vision
  • Cuts/bruises that are slow to heal
  • Tingling/numbness in hands or feet
  • Recurring skin, gum or bladder infections

What to Do

  • Patient education is critical.
  • People with diabetes, with the help of their health care providers, should set a goal for better control of blood sugar levels.
  • Education of your health care team — your physician, nurses, other caregivers, and yourself — is vital.