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ODU Researcher Links New Type 2 Diabetes Cases to Air Pollution

By Noell Saunders

It's known that lack of exercise, poor eating habits and genetics can all contribute to type 2 diabetes. But a new global study from the journal Lancet Planetary Health points to an additional culprit: the air pollution emitted by cars and trucks.

The study reported that in 2016 alone, air pollution contributed to 3.2 million new diabetes cases - 14 percent of the total -- around the world. In the United States, air pollution was linked to 150,000 new cases of diabetes per year, according to the study.

Sheri Colberg-Ochs, an ODU professor emerita of exercise science and long-time expert on diabetes, said persistent organic pollutants like pesticides and air pollution can contribute to a host of health-related problems.

"Particulate matter and other toxins in the air are breathed in and lead to inflammation in the body," Colberg-Ochs said. "Inflammation underlies most metabolic diseases, including insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and more."

She was not involved in the study but said it provided important information by measuring the effects of pollution on new diabetes cases.

Colberg-Ochs specializes in diabetes and exercise research. A frequent lecturer around the world, she is the author of over 400 research and educational articles, 17 book chapters and 12 books.

At Old Dominion, Colberg-Ochs taught undergraduate and graduate courses in exercise physiology, clinical exercise physiology and nutrition for health, fitness and sport. She has led studies funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Diabetes Association, in collaboration with researchers in Old Dominion's College of Health Sciences and Eastern Virginia Medical School. She also served as an adjunct professor of internal medicine at EVMS.

Colberg-Ochs said developing countries that are more dependent on the use of coal are at greater risk. Colberg-Ochs traveled to China twice last year and said she experienced firsthand the pollution from the coal-burning factories generating energy in November.

"This problem is only getting worse. China and India have a much higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes and prediabetes than the U.S.," she said.

Although we can't control all the air that we breathe, Colberg-Ochs said healthy lifestyle habits including a better diet, more physical activity, improved gut health and a weight loss regimen can drive down the risk of getting type 2 diabetes.

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