Economic growth is a good thing by most standards, but a new study by researchers at the Ohio State University (OSU) say that may not be the case when it comes to our health.
By way of what researchers call the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis, the OSU study suggests that if the economic conditions present during fetal development improve dramatically during a person’s childhood, the prospects of poor health (including the proliferation of epidemics like obesity and diabetes) in adulthood increase. In other words, "rapid economic growth could strain bodies developed for a lean world," a summary of the findings states.
According to the hypothesis, pregnant women living in poverty influence fetal development by sending biological signals that adequate nutrition will be hard to come by in life. When children instead grow up under relatively prosperous conditions, their bodies can’t adjust, the study explains.
The link between a person's financial state and their likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes has also been referred to as "disease of affluence," or conditions driven by a community's exposure to refined sugars and processed foods. And they aren't only embedded into communities characterized as affluent.
In the South, particularly among African Americans, poverty was rampant for several generations until industrialization took hold in the 1950s and '60s, the OSU study notes. When economic growth ensued, so did the region's strikingly high prevalence of Type 2 diabetes.
“It’s a clash between anticipated lifestyle and the lifestyle that’s realized,” said study author Richard Steckel, explaining how improvements in income translate into the increased consumption of processed foods and sedentary lifestyle that increase a person's risk for obesity and other diseases.
That isn't to say other proven causes of diabetes are moot. "I’m just trying to back up behind those proximate causes and say this is the underlying mechanism: a socioeconomic revolution, a nutrition revolution and a ‘derevolution’ of exercise and work,” Steckel said.
His theory supports findings from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the World Health Organization published last year comparing diabetes prevalence, food consumption and socioeconomic situations in 173 countries around the world.
Compiling 47 years worth of research, the study authors concluded that while affluence and urbanization may not cause diabetes, economics dictate a country's exposure to refined sugars and processed foods.
Since 1980, the number of diabetics worldwide has ballooned from 152 million to between 285 and 347 million today, the report notes.
In the southern U.S., the growth rate of median income between 1953 and 2001 was 191 percent for blacks and 84 percent for whites, putting African Americans at substantially higher risk for type 2 diabetes if the “thrifty phenotype” theory is true.