Almost 12 per cent of adults in China had diabetes in 2010, with economic prosperity driving the disease to slightly higher proportions than in the United States, researchers said Tuesday.
The overall prevalence of diabetes in China in 2010 was found to be 11.6 per cent of adults -- 12.1 per cent in men, and 11.0 per cent in women, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
In the United States, about 11.3 per cent of people over 20 have diabetes according to 2011 data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The disease was more prevalent in China than in the United States even though the population was thinner -- average body mass index, a ratio of height and body weight, was just 23.7 in China compared to 28.7 in the United States.
"The prevalence of diabetes has increased significantly in recent decades," said the JAMA study.
"These data suggest that diabetes may have reached an alert level in the Chinese general population, with the potential for a major epidemic of diabetes-related complications, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, and chronic kidney disease in China in the near future without an effective national intervention."
Only 30 per cent of Chinese with diabetes were aware of their condition, it said.
Further, about half of the population has high blood sugar, or a condition known as prediabetes, according to a nationally representative sample of Chinese adults.
Diabetes has been rising in China along with the nation's economic growth. In 1980, the prevalence of diabetes was less than one per cent of the population.
The latest findings mark a more than two percentage point increase over 2007, when a national survey found a 9.7 per cent prevalence of diabetes, or about 92.5 million adults.
The current data puts the total number of cases of diabetes in China at 113.9 million.
Worldwide, the prevalence of diabetes is estimated to be about 8.3 of the global population, or 371 million people.
"China is now among the countries with the highest diabetes prevalence in Asia and has the largest absolute disease burden of diabetes in the world," said the study.
The Chinese survey included more than 98,650 people and was led by Yu Xu of the Shanghai Jiao-Tong University School of Medicine and colleagues with the 2010 China Noncommunicable Disease Surveillance Group.
Some 113.9 million Chinese adults over age 18 (60.5 million men and 53.4 million women) were believed to have had diabetes in 2010, it said.
Diabetes was more common in urban areas and among young and middle aged people who were overweight or obese, and was found to be increasing along with economic development.
The research suggested that one cause for the growing trend could be poor nutrition among pregnant women and young babies, combined with over-eating later in life.
According to an accompanying editorial in JAMA by Juliana Chan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, "rapid modernization" has fueled an environment that encourages diabetes "characterized by food abundance, physical inactivity, and psychosocial stress."
The CDC says that diabetes is top cause of blindness, kidney failure and amputations of the legs and feet, and was the seventh leading cause of death in the US in 2007.
One in three US adults will have diabetes by 2050 if current trends continue, according to the CDC.
The disease is characterized by the body's shortage of insulin, or an inability to use the hormone efficiently for converting glucose into energy.