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ASU students focus on Latinos in fight against diabetes

Tatiana Alvarado, 19, speaks to community members who are receiving education about curbing obesity
October 04, 2015

According to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost half of all post-Millennial youth will be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in their lifetime, with Latinos leading the way.

Although those numbers might startle some people, they don’t surprise Tatianna Alvarado and Jamie Karch, a pair of students enrolled in ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

“Many of my family members have diabetes, and my mother is a type 2 diabetic. The last year of high school I took care of her,” said Alvarado, a 19-year-old sophomore. “I’d interact with her, told her what diabetes was, took her to the gym and tried to discipline her sometimes … but there was only so much I could do as a daughter.”

Now that she’s a bit older and better educated, Alvarado feels she can do much more. So does Karch, which is why the two undergrads are playing key roles in a community-based diabetes prevention program and study for obese Latino youth called “Every Little Step Counts.”

The five-year, $1.2 million study funded by the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities tests the effects and incremental cost-effectiveness of a culturally grounded community-based lifestyle intervention on obesity-related health outcomes among Latino adolescents.

To date, 160 obese Latino youth, ages 14-16 have been enrolled in the randomized control trial. Participants in the 12-week intervention and their families engage in weekly nutrition education sessions where they learn behavioral strategies to prevent chronic health conditions related to obesity and type 2 diabetes at the Lincoln Center Family YMCA in Phoenix. In addition to nutrition classes, youth participate in three, one-hour moderate-to-vigorous physical activity sessions led by certified trainers. At the end of the trial, youth in the control arm of the study receive a free, one-year membership to the YMCA, and participate in exercise sessions at the YMCA and nutrition classes at ASU’s Nutrition Kitchen at the Downtown Phoenix campus.

 Tatiana Alvarado, 19, and St. Vincent De Paul Family Wellness Program Health Education Coordinator Ricardo Reyes speak to community members

Arizona State University nursing and health innovation student Tatiana Alvarado, 19, and St. Vincent De Paul Family Wellness Program Health Education Coordinator Ricardo Reyes speak to community members as they examine their blood work during a nutrition course at the ASU state-of-the-art food lab at the downtown campus Wednesday afternoon, September 23rd 2015. According to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control, almost half of all post-Millennial Latino youth will be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

Gabriel Shaibi, an associate professor with the College of Nursing and Health Innovation and the principal investigator on the trial, said past community-embedded intervention programs have failed to reach its intended audience because it has been a “top down” approach from doctor/researcher to patients. And the reality is patients don’t always listen to their doctor.

That might be one reason why the past decade has seen Arizona experience the largest statewide increase in the number of children and adolescents who are obese. Shaibi said those numbers translate to a myriad of problems, including rising diabetes rates.

“Once you are diagnosed with diabetes, it becomes a management issue,” Shaibi said. “This is a relatively new phenomenon with kids, but it can ultimately lead to neuropathy, blindness, kidney disease and ultimately heart attacks. Those kids on average lose about 15 years on life.”

Latinos are genetically predisposed to having diabetes. But the problem is compounded by the fact that, culturally and historically, Latinos have often used food to express themselves, Alvarado said.

“Anything that happens in the Latino culture, be it positive or negative — birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, promotions, funerals — food plays a big part,” Alvarado said. “It’s interaction and eating, but you don’t really notice you’re overeating until after the fact. Moderation is the key, and that’s what we’re trying to teach the Latino community.”

Which is why Shaibi has pushed Alvarado and Karch to the forefront of the trial program, but at opposite ends of the spectrum — Alvarado interacting with the community and dispensing exercise and nutrition advice, and Karch in the lab gathering blood samples, data and reviewing medical information.

“I am closer in age to these kids and have gone what they’ve gone through,” Alvarado said. “Age is a big thing and they feel as if they can come to me for advice.”

Karch said she is content in her role in the lab because she understands her work is just as vital.

“I do more of the background work, but mine and Tatianna’s goals are the same in that we want to give back to the Latino community,” Karch said.

That is also the goal of the ASU Sun Devil Family Association, who awarded Alvarado and Karch with $5,000 scholarships each for the academic year. These scholarships are awarded to individuals who have demonstrated financial need, a record of community service and a commitment to their education despite challenging circumstances.

This semester Alvarado and Karch have plans to meet their donors, who are also in the nursing field.

“I cannot wait to meet her and hug her,” Alvarado said. “I cannot believe she gave money to someone she didn’t even know. She has made my life so much easier because of her help.”

And it’s not lost on Alvarado or Karch that the help they receive from the Sun Devil Family Association goes right back into the community.

“That’s what I love about nursing,” Alvarado said. “It’s the art of caring for people.”