Now and then, an epidemic makes headlines, grabbing the public’s attention and striking fear into hearts everywhere. The deadly ebola epidemic is a recent example, and influenza takes the spotlight when cold and flu season comes around. But while it doesn’t grab the public’s attention to the extent that ebola and the flu do, diabetes is another disease of epidemic proportions. Diabetes, which leads to debilitating conditions and claims thousands of lives in this country annually, is striking more and more people.
In a report released in 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called the increase in diabetes cases “alarming.”
There are two main types of diabetes – type 1 and type 2. Around the world, 387 million people live with one or the other, according to the International Diabetes Federation website. This figure includes both diagnosed and undiagnosed cases. In the U.S. alone, the American Diabetes Association reports, there were 29.1 million people with diabetes in 2012. That number was up from 25.8 million in 2010. The numbers are expected to keep rising. The CDC report predicts that by 2025, 1 in 5 Americans will have full-blown diabetes; by 2050, 1 in 3 Americans will have it.
It’s a dark scenario, but the good news is that diabetes can be managed and in many cases is preventable.
Type 1 diabetes generally strikes children and young adults, occurring when a person’s immune system destroys the cells that make insulin, which is a hormone that regulates blood sugar.
The focus of this article is type 2 diabetes, also called adult onset diabetes. Type 2 is the most common form of the disease. It develops when a person’s cells can’t utilize insulin the way they should and the pancreas becomes unable to produce it.
The precursor to full-blown type 2 diabetes is a condition known as prediabetes. This occurs when an individual’s blood sugar level is higher than normal, but not high enough to be designated as type 2 diabetes.
Like full-blown diabetes, prediabetes is on the rise in this country. In 2010, the American Diabetes Association reports, there were 79 million Americans with prediabetes. In 2012, 86 million Americans ages 20 and older had developed prediabetes.
A diagnosis of prediabetes, however, “is not necessarily a bad thing,” says Hope Williams, health and wellness specialist with Ministry Medical Group. “It’s an indicator that you are at increased risk of developing diabetes, and with a healthy diet and exercise, you can prevent diabetes or put it off for a while.
“If pre-diabetes is left untreated, it will develop into diabetes,” she continues. “It is important to find out early if you have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes because early treatment can prevent serious problems that diabetes can cause, such as loss of eyesight or kidney damage.”
Those ailments are just the tip of the iceberg. Diabetes can also lead to nerve damage, amputations, increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, and other ailments.
Many people with prediabetes don’t display symptoms. Some red flags, however, may include extreme fatigue, blurred vision, needing to urinate often or exaggerated thirst.
“Anyone aged 45 years or older should consider getting tested for diabetes, especially if you are overweight,” Hope says. “If you are younger than 45 but are overweight and have one or more additional risk factors, you should consider getting tested.”
Among those additional risk factors are ethnicity (there are higher rates of diabetes among Native and African Americans, Latinos and Pacifi c Islanders), medical history and a low level of physical activity. As mentioned above, age is also a risk factor: the body’s ability to process sugar properly changes as an individual gets older.
People with high triglycerides, a history of heart disease and women who have had gestational diabetes or who have given birth to a baby weighing more than nine pounds should also consider getting tested. Many people, Hope adds, have prediabetes or diabetes years before a diagnosis. This is why it’s important to undergo an annual physical.
Being tested for diabetes is just one crucial step in fighting the disease.
“Structured lifestyle intervention aimed at increasing physical activity and producing 5 to 10 percent loss of body weight, and certain pharmacological agents have been demonstrated to prevent or delay the development of diabetes,” Hope Williams says. “If a person increases their activity and improves their diet/eating, they may improve their glucose levels to those of a ‘normal’ non-prediabetic person.”
For many people, adopting a more active lifestyle and making healthier dining choices can be challenging, but Hope offers some suggestions for making the transition easier.
“Make [exercise] a priority,” she says. “Schedule it just like you would an appointment.” It may also make things easier to have a buddy with whom to exercise. “It’s easier to cancel on yourself than someone else,” Hope points out.
Find ways to incorporate exercise into everyday tasks. For example, “Make several trips to the car to bring your groceries in, instead of bringing them all in at once,” Hope says. Park farther away from the store entrance and before beginning shopping, walk a lap around the store.
There are plenty of opportunities to be active at home. Hope suggests standing up when talking on the phone, and when watching television, walk in place or do push-ups, sit-ups or arm curls during commercials.
Making lifestyle changes can be frustrating, and it’s easy to slip up on occasion. It’s important to forgive one’s self when this happens.
“A person does not have to be perfect all of the time,” Hope says. “Make the best choices you can… sometimes you just have to enjoy the moment and then get right back on track. Eating a piece of cake does not mean you blew it for the whole day. It means you chose to have a piece of cake. Enjoy the moment and enjoy the flavor.”
Finally, use what’s known as the “80/20 rule.” “Try to do the best you can 80 percent of the time,” Hope advises. “Nobody is perfect. If you try to be perfect all the time, you will get burnt out.”