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Diabetes is Called “Epidemic,” But are You at Risk

separator If you’re interested in the statistics on diabetes, they’re easy to find:

  • 15 million Americans have type 2 diabetes. 
  • An estimated 300,000 children now have the disease (it used to be rare in children).
  • The incidence of type 2 diabetes has increased by one third since 1990.
  • One-third of the people who have type 2 don’t know they have it.

Sometimes, all this talk about diabetes becoming an epidemic can be confused with the constant—and changing—advice we hear about diet and exercise. “Oh, it’s just another warning they’re coming out with. First they tell us not to eat fat, then they tell us fat’s okay, then they tell us we have to exercise an hour a day, then they say 30 minutes are enough, then they say diabetes is an epidemic…”

But numbers don’t lie. The diabetes statistics are based on fact alone, not on study results that can be interpreted in different ways.

Know the risk factors

It’s not hard to be at risk for diabetes. In fact, it’s almost harder not to be at risk. You’re at increased risk of diabetes if:

  • You are a member of any of the following groups:

            African American
            American Indian
            Asian American
            Pacific Islander

  • You’re over 45
  • You exercise very little or not at all
  • You’re overweight
  • You have a family history of diabetes
  • You’ve had a baby that weighed more than nine pounds at birth

But even if you have one or more risk factors, the story doesn’t have to be grim for you. Most of the people who have type 2 diabetes now had a condition called “pre-diabetes” first. And when you’re in the pre-diabetes phase, there are concrete steps you can take to slow the progression of diabetes and maybe even prevent it from occurring at all.

Pre-diabetes: 16 million Americans have it

When “pre-diabetes” is present, blood sugar levels are higher than average, but they’re not high enough to qualify as actual diabetes. Pre-diabetes is also sometimes called “insulin resistance.” It occurs when the body’s cells aren’t able to use insulin as well as they should. More insulin is needed, but the pancreas is unable to produce enough of it. The result is more sugar in the blood than there should be.

Last summer, the National Institutes of Health announced important findings from a study called the Diabetes Prevention Program. All participants—3, 234 of them—in the study were overweight, and all had pre-diabetes. The people who exercised 30 minutes per day (most chose walking as their exercise) and lost 7 percent of their body weight decreased their risk of getting type 2 diabetes by 58 percent.

Steps you can take
First of all, find out if you’re one of the 16 million Americans whose blood sugar level puts you in the “pre-diabetes” category. If it does, the more healthy changes you can make, the better your chances of getting your blood sugar in a healthier range and decreasing your diabetes risk. What are the changes?

  • Try to exercise every day. If the thought is unappealing, try something like yoga, t’ai chi or qigong. These activities are not strenuous and they make you feel good. They can help you get exercise without hating the idea of actually exercising.
  • Think about reducing the amount of television you watch. A study released by the Harvard School of Public Health found that men who watched 21 to 40 hours of television per week had double the risk of diabetes than men who rarely watched TV. And those who watched a lot of television had a tendency to eat unhealthy snack foods while they watched. It seems watching TV and eating too much often go hand in hand, so see if you can change that pattern if it’s one you’ve fallen into.
  • Talk with your doctor or a dietitian about your daily food intake. This is the best way for you to learn what kinds of foods you should be eating, what kinds you should be limiting and how much you should be eating.

Some people may think that having diabetes isn’t really such a big deal, that it just means you can’t eat a lot of sugar. The truth is that when you have diabetes, you’re much more likely to have heart disease or a stroke, you’re at increased risk of vision problems and you are more likely to have nerve damage that can result in amputations. It’s definitely worth the trouble to make changes now that may keep you from getting diabetes or at least keep diabetes at bay for years to come.

American Diabetes Association; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The National Association of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders; The New York Times, “Diabetes Candidates Can Reduce the Risk,” 15 January 2002.
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