Shah Ebrahim and colleagues examine the distribution of obesity, diabetes, and other cardiovascular risk factors among urban migrant factory workers in India, together with their rural siblings. The investigators identify patterns of change of cardiovascular risk factors associated with urban migration.
Migration from rural areas of India contributes to urbanisation and may increase the risk of obesity and diabetes. We tested the hypotheses that rural-to-urban migrants have a higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes than rural nonmigrants, that migrants would have an intermediate prevalence of obesity and diabetes compared with life-long urban and rural dwellers, and that longer time since migration would be associated with a higher prevalence of obesity and of diabetes.
Methods and Findings
The place of origin of people working in factories in north, central, and south India was identified. Migrants of rural origin, their rural dwelling sibs, and those of urban origin together with their urban dwelling sibs were assessed by interview, examination, and fasting blood samples. Obesity, diabetes, and other cardiovascular risk factors were compared. A total of 6,510 participants (42% women) were recruited. Among urban, migrant, and rural men the age- and factory-adjusted percentages classified as obese (body mass index [BMI] >25 kg/m2) were 41.9% (95% confidence interval [CI] 39.1–44.7), 37.8% (95% CI 35.0–40.6), and 19.0% (95% CI 17.0–21.0), respectively, and as diabetic were 13.5% (95% CI 11.6–15.4), 14.3% (95% CI 12.2–16.4), and 6.2% (95% CI 5.0–7.4), respectively. Findings for women showed similar patterns. Rural men had lower blood pressure, lipids, and fasting blood glucose than urban and migrant men, whereas no differences were seen in women. Among migrant men, but not women, there was weak evidence for a lower prevalence of both diabetes and obesity among more recent (≤10 y) migrants.
Migration into urban areas is associated with increases in obesity, which drive other risk factor changes. Migrants have adopted modes of life that put them at similar risk to the urban population. Gender differences in some risk factors by place of origin are unexpected and require further exploration.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
India, like the rest of the world, is experiencing an epidemic of diabetes, a chronic disease characterized by dangerous levels of sugar in the blood that cause cardiovascular and kidney disease, which lower life expectancy. The prevalence of diabetes (the proportion of the population with diabetes) has been increasing steadily in India over recent decades, particularly in urban areas. In 1984, only 5% of adults living in the towns and cities of India had diabetes, but by 2004, 15% of adults in urban areas were affected by diabetes. In rural areas of India, diabetes is less common than in urban areas but even here, the prevalence of diabetes is now 6%. Obesity—too much body fat—is a major risk factor for diabetes and, in parallel with the greater increase in diabetes in urban India compared to rural India, there has been a greater increase in obesity in urban areas than in rural areas.
Why Was This Study Done?
Experts think that the increasing prevalence of obesity and diabetes in India (and in other developing countries) is caused in part by increased consumption of saturated fats and sugars and by reduced physical activity, and that these changes are related to urbanization—urban expansion into the countryside and migration from rural to urban areas. If living in an urban setting is a major determinant of obesity and diabetes risk, then people migrating into urban areas should acquire the high risk of the urban population for these two conditions. In this cross-sectional study (a study in which participants are studied at a single time point), the researchers investigate whether rural to urban migrants in India have a higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes than rural nonmigrants. They also ask whether migrants have a prevalence of obesity and diabetes intermediate between that of life-long urban and rural dwellers and whether a longer time since migration is associated with a higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers recruited rural-urban migrants working in four Indian factories in north, central, and south regions and their spouses (if they were living in the same town) into their study. Each migrant worker and spouse asked one nonmigrant brother or sister (sibling) still living in their place of origin to join the study. The researchers also enrolled nonmigrant factory workers and their urban siblings into the study. All the participants (more than 6,500 in total) answered questions about their diet and physical activity and had their fasting blood sugar and their body mass index (BMI; weight in kg divided by height in meters squared) measured; participants with a fasting blood sugar of more than 7.0 nmol/l or a BMI of more than 25 kg/m2 were classified as diabetic or obese, respectively. 41.9% and 37.8% of the urban and migrant men, respectively, but only 19.0% of the rural men were obese. Similarly, 13.5% and 14.3% of the urban and migrant men, respectively, but only 6.2% of the rural men had diabetes. Patterns of obesity and diabetes among the women participants were similar. Finally, although the prevalence of diabetes and obesity was lower in the most recent male migrants than in those who had moved more than 10 years previously, this difference was small and not seen in women migrants.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that rural-urban migration in India is associated with rapid increases in obesity and in diabetes. They also show that the migrants have adopted modes of life (for example, reduced physical activity) that put them at a similar risk for obesity and diabetes as the urban population. The findings do not show, however, that migrants have an intermediate prevalence of obesity and diabetes compared to urban and rural dwellers and provide only weak support for the idea that a longer time since migration is associated with a higher risk of obesity and diabetes. Although the study's cross-sectional design means that the researchers could not investigate how risk factors for diabetes evolve over time, these findings suggest that urbanization is helping to drive the diabetes epidemic in India. Thus, targeting migrants and their families for health promotion activities and for treatment of risk factors for obesity and diabetes might help to slow the progress of the epidemic.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000268.
The International Diabetes Federation provides information about all aspects of diabetes, including information on diabetes in Southeast Asia (in English, French, and Spanish)
DiabetesIndia.com provides information on the Indian Task Forces on diabetes care in India
Diabetes Foundation (India) has an international collaborative research focus and provides information about health promotion for diabetes; it has also produced consensus guidelines on dietary change for prevention of diabetes in India
The US National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse provides detailed information about diabetes for patients, health care professionals, and the general public (in English and Spanish)
MedlinePlus provides links to further resources and advice about diabetes (in English and Spanish)