Genetic ancestry linked to diabetes, heart failure and obesity among Native Hawaiians

Feb. 17, 2021

A research team has conducted a study to systematically investigate the genomes of Native Hawaiians and test the components for health risks associated with genetic ancestry. The findings, which appeared in the journal PLoS Genetics, show that, for example, Polynesian ancestry in Native Hawaiians is linked to increased risk of diabetes, heart failure and higher body-mass index, a measure of body fat, according to a news release from the University of Southern California.

The researchers correlated health data (from questionnaire, laboratory measurements, and hospital Medicare claims) and the genetics of 3,940 people who identify as Native Hawaiian from the Multiethnic Cohort Study, a joint project of USC and the University of Hawaii. The research team found that for each 10 percent increase in estimated Polynesian ancestry, there is on average an 11 percent increase in risk of heart failure, an 8.6 percent increase in risk of type 2 diabetes and a 0.35 unit increase in body-mass index.

Further studies may be able to identify genetic variants and underlying biological factors specific to Polynesian populations, knowledge that could help reduce these health risks.

The research team essentially constructed a genomic model for Polynesian ancestry among Native Hawaiians by identifying a subsample of roughly 150 participants with the least amount of external heritance.

Charleston Chiang, PhD, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, pointed out that race and ethnicity are socially constructed concepts, and distinct from the issues explored in this study – that is how certain genes shared among a population contribute to specific health metrics and outcomes. Ethnicity instead is, and should be, defined by genealogical records or how a person self-identifies.

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