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Diet can be a serious risk factor for a number of diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and some cancers, but the exact effect of different components of food may depend on your individual genetic makeup. For example, a single letter change in DNA in people living in Scandinavia 10,000 years ago allows most Caucasian adults today to drink milk without getting sick due to lactose intolerance.

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James S. Marks, M.D., M.P.H., senior vice president, directs all program and administrative activities of the RWJF Health Group. This includes the Foundation's work in childhood obesity, public health and vulnerable populations. Prior to joining RWJF in December 2004, Marks retired as assistant surgeon general after serving as director of the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion for almost a decade.

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Dr. Herman A. Taylor Jr. is director and principal investigator of the Jackson Heart Study, the largest-ever, population-based study of heart disease and related disorders among African-Americans. In his capacity as director of the Mississippi-based study since 1998, he holds appointments at Jackson State University, Tougaloo College, and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He also holds the medical center's Aaron Shirley Chair for the Study of Health Disparities.

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Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Connor is a professor of family and preventive medicine at the UCSD School of Medicine. An internationally recognized expert in epidemiology, Barrett-Connor's main focus is on the factors promoting a healthy old age. She is founder and director of the three-decade-old Rancho Bernardo Heart and Chronic Disease Study, which has produced data defining causal factors for diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis as well as cardiovascular disease. Her research focuses on healthy aging and gender differences in disease, with strong emphasis on women's health.

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Dr. Christopherson's research interest concerns the use of exercise as an intervention in the prevention and treatment of coronary heart disease. Her research includes lipids, body composition, and exercise testing measures. She also studies smoking cessation for women with heart disease and exercise in senior citizens. She works part-time in a cardiac rehabilitation facility.

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This racial group includes any of the original peoples of North, South and Central America who maintain tribal affiliation or community attachment. The five leading causes of death among American Indians and Alaska Natives are heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, diabetes and chronic liver disease/cirrhosis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention's Office of Minority Health & Health Disparities. Native Americans suffer disproportionately high rates of obesity, infant mortality, mental health problems and substance abuse.

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The health concerns of African-Americans are varied and critical. African-American men have the highest death rate of all racial and ethnic groups, male and female. The 10 leading causes of death for African-Americans are: heart disease; cancer; stroke; diabetes; unintentional injuries; homicide; nephritis, nephritic syndrome and nephrosis; chronic lower respiratory disease; HIV/AIDS and septicemia. There is also a high prevalence of hypertension, infant mortality and tuberculosis.

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Cancer is the leading cause of death for Asian Americans, though heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans in general. Asian Americans also have a disproportionately high incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hepatitis B, HIV/AIDS, liver disease, and tuberculosis. They are more likely to smoke, a risk factor for numerous diseases. Despite these factors, Asian American women have the longest life expectancy (85.8 years) of any ethnic group in the United States. Many Asian Americans face language and cultural barriers to obtaining health care.

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Native Americans experience higher disease rates than other Americans for problems ranging from diabetes and heart ailments to mental illness and suicides, which contribute to their lower life expectancy. Get tips from a veteran journalist for covering these health issues.

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Obesity is visible — walk down the street and you bump into it. Diabetes, on the other hand, is silent and tragic. Here are tips for reporting on the links between them.

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