Does Your Ethnic Background Put You at a Larger Risk for Asthma?

by Jennifer Mitchell Wilson B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

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More attention has recently been paid to the fact that your ethnic background may have more to do with your chances of developing asthma. Not only are African Americans and Hispanics more likely to have asthma, they are also more likely to visit the emergency room or require a hospital stay due to their asthma. Death rates from asthma in these minority groups are also higher than in white populations. While asthma experts still struggle to understand why 10 percent of people develop this disease, there are several factors that may contribute to the higher incidence in minority populations.

One reason for the differences seen in minorities with asthma may be due to socioeconomic factors. In his article 9 Reasons Poverty May Cause Asthma John Bottrell discusses the following ways low socioeconomic status can contribute to asthma incidence and poor control. Some of the factors included:

  • High cost of asthma medicine

  • High copays

  • Lacking health insurance

  • High rates of smoking

  • Poor housing

  • Pollution

  • Obesity

  • Poor access to healthcare

  • Low birth weight

It used to be thought that poverty played a bigger role in asthma prevalence than genetic differences in minorities. While low socioeconomic levels can contribute to the problem they do not explain every asthma case seen in minorities. Recent studies by UC San Francisco have shown that genetic ancestry also influenced the development of lung disease in minority children.

New findings call for more ethnic-specific standards

The researchers at UC San Francisco studied 5,493 children of Mexican and Puerto Rican decent. Previous knowledge told researchers that Native Americans have a lower risk for asthma and African Americans have a greater risk. Drawing from population studies that show that Mexicans have more Native American ancestry and Puerto Ricans have more African ancestry they compared the two new groups. The Puerto Rican results showed that every 20 percent increase in African ancestry was correlated with a 40 percent increase in asthma risk. For the Mexican group every 20 percent increase in Native American ancestry lessened the odds of developing asthma by 43 percent.

In addition to these factors the team also noted that even without asthma the group with the highest African American ancestry had a lower score on lung function testing overall. Yet, African American children who are diagnosed with asthma are still compared to the standard equations used for white and Hispanic children with asthma. Since there are genetic differences it will be important in the future to develop new reference standards for a baseline lung function level for those with African American or Puerto Rican ancestry.

Knowing the genetic background of patients as well as their socioeconomic status will be important for determining the risk for asthma and assessing it properly in the future. Future studies may need to focus on developing risk profiles for other ethnic backgrounds as well as determining baseline lung function measurements so that every race gets an accurate diagnosis.

Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition. She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma and food allergies for the past 12 years. Jennifer also serves the Board of Directors for Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Mitchell Wilson

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson is a dietitian and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and has done graduate work in public health and nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.