May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and continue to do so every day. To help commemorate, we spoke with Dr. George L. King, an American Diabetes Association Board Member and Chief Scientific Officer of the Joslin Diabetes Center, about his role with the Association, his research on diabetes among Asian Americans and more.
Could you tell us about your background, both your heritage and your professional work?
I was born in Taiwan and came to the United States when I was about 10 years old. I attended medical school at Duke University, and after completing my residency, I trained with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That is where I became interested in the science of diabetes. In 1981, I came to Joslin and Harvard Medical School, where I am Head of the Section on Vascular Biology and Professor of Medicine. My work focuses on finding the causes of diabetes complications, exploring insulin actions on blood vessels, discovering factors and new treatments for diabetes complications and understanding the reasons for the high rate of diabetes in Asian Americans.
Has diabetes personally impacted you or your family?
My father had type 2 diabetes and passed away from complications at 92 years old in the 1990s. Many members of my immediate family also currently live with type 2.
A lot of your work has focused on understanding the reasons for the high rate of diabetes in Asian Americans. What motivated you to study diabetes among this community?
In the beginning, I was interested in the science behind diabetes. When my father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, though, my research became more of a personal mission. You see, diabetes is not recognized as a problem within the Asian American community. Most Asian Americans are not overweight or obese, and yet, our community is at higher risk for type 2, at any weight. At 123 pounds, my father was told to lose weight when he was diagnosed. There isn’t a lot of information out there right now regarding diabetes and Asian Americans. For my family and community, I wanted to find the answers.
Why are Asian Americans at high risk of developing diabetes?
This is a very important question. Researchers are just now starting to look closely as this issue. We know that the majority of diagnoses are type 2 diabetes (type 1 diabetes is very rare in Asian Americans), but the answers as to why are still puzzling. Studies show that fat content in the abdomen is higher in Americans of Asian descent than in other ethnic groups. It’s been shown that a traditional Asian diet lowers prevalence of diabetes, but many Asian Americans eat a more “westernized” diet. We know that nutrition is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for Asian Americans, who are considered overweight and at increased risk for diabetes at a BMI (body mass index) of 24. For other groups, this number is 27 or above. Still, for most Asian Americans like my father, BMI is not a factor in developing type 2—which is why this is such a vital question.
What are some of the main challenges related to diabetes prevention and management among this community, and what do you think are the best solutions?
Diabetes awareness is a huge challenge. Ten years ago, diabetes prevalence in the Asian American community was very low, so this is a very new problem. We need to educate Asian Americans as well as health care providers of the seriousness of this issue in the Asian American populations. Because BMI doesn’t always apply for Asian Americans‘ type 2 diabetes risk, like it does for other ethnicities, we need to change the notion of what does apply when it comes to diabetes prevention and management, which is also a challenge. Almost all diabetes treatment advocates for changes in lifestyle. We know that diet and exercise can help prevent or delay the onsite of type 2 as well as being very helpful in managing it. Following a traditional Asian diet containing high fiber and complex carbohydrate, low fat and a physically active lifestyle can help prevent and manage type 2.
How long have you volunteered with the Association?
I have been actively involved with the Association for more than 30 years. Along with the Association’s Asian Pacific American Diabetes Action Council Advocacy Committee, I have served as Chair of the Council on Complications and held memberships on the Scientific Review Committee and the Scientific Program Committee for Scientific Sessions.
What does the Association’s Asian Pacific American Diabetes Action Council Advocacy Committee do, exactly?
I wanted to become involved with the Asian Pacific American Diabetes Action Council Advocacy Committee because there hadn’t been an advocacy group that focused on our community before, one that really emphasizes spreading awareness about diabetes. It was exciting that the Association put this together, and I knew I had to be a part of the organization’s huge power to help Asian Americans.
On top of all your responsibilities, you take time to volunteer with the Association’s New England office. Could you tell us about your work with the local office?
I am very involved with many different local office activities in New England, especially with Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes®. This year, I am a Team Captain for a group of diabetes researchers in our area. Last year, I was involved with the Joslin Diabetes Center team. It was wonderful to see so many people in the Boston Commons and so excited being there for a great and noble cause.
Dr. King and student volunteers at the Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes event in Boston in 2011.
What message do you have for Asian Americans with or without diabetes? What would you want them to know or to do—not just this month, but year-round?
Be aware of the issue. Asian Americans are at high risk for type 2 diabetes, even though it rarely relates to being overweight. You CAN be at normal weight and still develop type 2. Exercise and nutrition are very important. Walk, garden, do anything to get yourself moving. Be selective of the foods you eat. We can do something about this.
For more information about Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and how diabetes affects this community, visit the Association’s website.