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Inquiring Minds - Diabetes Research

By Bonnie Stevens

Flagstaff, AZ – When it comes to obesity and diabetes, Dr. Leslie Schulz is weighing in on the impacts of genetics and lifestyle.

The Pima Indians in the southern Arizona desert have a 40 percent diabetes rate. NAU's Dr. Leslie Schulz wondered why nearly half of that population is overweight and diabetic. She didn't have to look far to find answers.

Across the border in the remote mountainous village of Maycoba is another population of Pima Indians. Until recently, these Sierra Madre Pimas had no running water, no electricity, no cars, no convenience stores and very little diabetes.

"It would be similar to studies that have been done when you have identical twins," explains Schulz. "Then you put them in two different environments. This is a natural kind of experiment because you have two groups that are genetically related that just happen to be in two extremely different environments."

Centuries ago, there was a split in the Pima population. The genes and language are similar, but the lifestyle and diet are not.

"The biggest difference that we saw between the two diets had to do with the fiber content," Schulz says.

Both groups are susceptible to obesity and diabetes. Schulz blames it on the starvation gene.

"The thrifty gene theory states that people who survived during periods of feast and famine have a genetic predisposition to hold on to every calorie, to not expend any energy that's not necessary so that if they were to go through a long period of time when they didn't have access to food, those would be the people who would be more likely to survive."

That same gene that protected the Pimas during difficult times may be making them sick with an easier lifestyle. Schulz, the executive dean for NAU's College of Health and Human Services, says type 2 diabetes may be largely preventable. Her research may send us all running past fatty foods toward exercise and a high fiber diet.