The numbers are sobering. Diabetes, the chronic disease of elevated levels of blood glucose (blood sugar), continues to escalate globally. From 1980 to 2014, diabetes cases have risen by 108 million people worldwide — an estimated 422 million adults are now living with a blood sugar level that is higher than optimal. In the past decade, diabetes has increased most rapidly in low- and middle-income countries. In 2012 alone, diabetes caused the deaths of 1.5 million people around the world. Another 2.2 million people with diabetes died because their high blood glucose put them at risk for cardiovascular, kidney and other diseases.
Type 1 diabetes, previously known as insulin-dependent, occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin hormone. Type 1 diabetes patients depend on insulin injections for survival. Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for roughly 90 percent of all diabetes around the globe, results when the body does not effectively use insulin the pancreas produces. Gestational diabetes is a temporary condition of raised blood sugar during pregnancy that causes long-term risk of Type 2 diabetes. Impaired glucose tolerance and impaired fasting glycemia are considered pre-diabetes conditions in which blood glucose levels are only moderately elevated but put individuals at higher risk for developing diabetes.
World Diabetes Day
Of the 422 million people worldwide who live with diabetes, millions do not know they have the blood sugar disease. Some estimates show that one out of two people with Type 2 diabetes is undiagnosed. To help prevent and diagnose diabetes, many countries set aside November as Diabetes Awareness Month. The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) and its member associations annually designate November 14 as World Diabetes Day. Established in 1991 by the IDF and the World Health Organization (WHO), World Diabetes Day is the globe’s largest diabetes awareness campaign, reaching more than 1 billion people in over 160 countries. The campaign’s theme for 2018-2019 is “Family and Diabetes” to help support the role of family in the education, prevention, management and care of diabetes.
Diabetes Risk Factors and Symptoms
Although the specific causes of Type 1 diabetes are unknown, the medical community generally agrees that interaction between genetics and environmental factors lead to Type 1 diabetes, though WHO notes “no specific environmental risk factors have been shown to cause a significant number of cases.” In addition to ethnicity (e.g., Asians and Hispanics experience higher diabetes rates), the leading risk factors for Type 2 diabetes include being overweight, sedentary, a smoker, over the age of 45 and having a family history of diabetes. Individuals are also more susceptible to Type 2 diabetes if they have high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol or high triglycerides. Often, people with Type 2 diabetes have no symptoms of the disease, but common symptoms can include frequent urination, unusual thirst, extreme hunger, tiredness and unusual weight loss.
Complications of Diabetes
Early diagnosis and treatment are paramount in preventing the complications of diabetes and improving healthy outcomes. When diabetes is not well-managed, complications can be life-threatening, including coma and a buildup of acids in the blood called diabetic ketoacidosis. Left uncontrolled over time, diabetes can damage the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, eyes and nerves, and lead to heart disease, stroke and even premature death. Neuropathy — nerve damage in the feet — can progress to foot ulcers, infection and eventual limb amputation. A diabetic can go blind from long-term damage to tiny blood vessels in the eye’s retina. The IDF notes, “Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of disability and death in people with Type 2 diabetes.”
Preventing Type 2 Diabetes
Although a person cannot change risk factors of family history, age and ethnicity, they can prevent or delay Type 2 diabetes through lifestyle changes. The following can help reduce one’s risk for diabetes:
- A healthy weight—In the latest WHO data from 2014, more than one in three adults ages 18 and older were overweight and more than one in 10 were obese. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most successful ways to help the body control blood sugar. Even small changes in calorie intake can help with weight loss over time.
- Regular physical activity—All types of exercise help lower blood glucose and can decrease the need for insulin or diabetes pills.
- Healthy eating—A lower calorie count is advised for overweight or obese people. Other diabetes prevention basics are avoiding added sugars and starchy carbohydrates, substituting unsaturated fats for saturated and limiting the use of alcohol. Fueling the body with smaller meals or a snack about every four hours helps avoid blood sugar spikes.
If a person is at the pre-diabetes level, new medications are now proving helpful to keep pre-diabetes from progressing to Type 2 diabetes. A number of international websites, including the International Diabetes Federation and diabetes.org, list diabetes prevention tips, meal and snack guidelines, and flavorful recipes for diabetics and those prone to the disease.