Observed annually on the fourth Tuesday in March, Diabetes Alert Day is a wake-up call to inform the American public about the seriousness of diabetes – an illness that affects millions of Americans of all ages, particularly when diabetes is left undiagnosed or untreated. This year, Diabetes Alert Day falls on March 24, and it’s especially imperative that the people of Alabama take note considering our state has among the highest prevalence of diabetes in the United States.
There are two types of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1, once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, is an autoimmune condition in which antibodies are formed against the pancreas and causes it to stop producing insulin, the hormone needed to allow glucose to enter the body’s cells to produce energy.
Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes and is a chronic condition that affects the way the body metabolizes glucose, an important source of fuel for the body. With type 2, the body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin because of obesity, lifestyle and genetic factors, and ultimately, the pancreas cannot produce enough of the hormone to maintain normal glucose levels. Over months to years, the pancreas begins to fail, and patients can become completely dependent on insulin injections, similar to people with type 1 diabetes.
People with a family history of type 2 diabetes are at an increased risk for developing the illness. When people with diabetes family history also add in lifestyle factors that are precursors for diabetes, such as being sedentary or overweight, the level of risk increases.
I recommend that people who are at risk avoid foods high in carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta, as well as limit their daily intake of foods with added sugars and excess calories, all of which increase the risk of obesity and diabetes. Regular exercise also lowers the risk of developing diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight and increasing muscle tone and metabolism.
There is no cure, per se, but in my practice, I have seen diabetes essentially resolve with dramatic lifestyle changes and weight loss. It’s important to note that the risk will always be there for some people, but if you can change your lifestyle, lose weight, change your eating habits and increase physical activity, you can potentially forego medications and dramatically reduce your risk for developing complications associated with the disease.
Diabetes can increase the risk for many serious health problems which may include skin infections, vision problems, nerve damage, kidney disease, circulation issues, stroke and heart disease. Symptoms associated with diabetes might include tiredness and increased hunger. If a person’s blood sugar is really high, it can cause a catabolic reaction and lead to weight loss. High blood sugar is also like a diuretic, and it can have a water-pill effect, causing patients to urinate frequently.
It is extremely important to recognize the symptoms of diabetes and seek medical treatment early. If you struggle with being overweight, and you have a family history of type 2 diabetes, you need to see a physician and get tested. Early detection is crucial.
Sometimes patients with type 2 diabetes do not have obvious symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Their blood sugar can be elevated, and they may be slowly developing problems without realizing it.
Complications may not happen tomorrow, next month or even in three to five years, but they eventually will happen, and it may be 10 to 20 years after the disease process begins. It can be difficult for patients to understand and acknowledge the long-term goal. Physicians spend a great deal of time educating patients about the importance of monitoring diabetes and the long term effects that will undoubtedly happen if untreated.
The bottom line is that knowing more about diabetes means knowing how you can improve your health in the long term. Talk with your family members and learn your family history. If you are at risk for type 2 diabetes, it’s important to take action as soon as possible and talk with your physician about getting tested. If your test results indicate you have this condition, form a comprehensive game plan with the advice of your healthcare team to prevent these devastating complications.
Erin Townsley, MD is an Internal Medicine Specialist and Director of Princeton Baptist Medical Center’s Internal Medicine Residency Program.
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