By Heather Lien, Overlake Nurse Practitioner, MSN, FNP-BC, CDE
According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are now 23.6 million people in the United States living with diabetes—nearly 8 percent of the population. Six million of them are undiagnosed. With these staggering numbers, type 2 diabetes is now considered an epidemic.
Diabetes is caused by the body’s inability to make or use insulin. Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, is needed to regulate blood sugar or blood glucose that is created when your body breaks down the food you eat. Insulin takes the glucose from your blood into your cells to produce energy. Without insulin, glucose builds up in your bloodstream and can cause diabetes
There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that is not preventable. Although it is most often present in children, it can develop at any age. In type 1, the pancreas no longer produces insulin and people with type 1 must receive insulin from injections or a pump to live. The more common type of diabetes is type 2, which accounts for about 90 percent of all people with diabetes. Many risk factors for type 2 are lifestyle related and can be prevented. The percentage of people with type 1 diabetes has remained steady, but the percentage of people with type 2 has skyrocketed, along with the rise in obesity.
Type 2 diabetes was once a disease found mostly in adults over the age of 60, but it’s now common among all age groups, including children. Nearly 80 percent of patients diagnosed with diabetes are also obese.
Years ago, a diabetes diagnosis was confirmed once complications were identified. Now we know better, and we rely on blood-sugar levels to confirm the diagnosis so we can intervene early and try to avoid the development of serious complications.
Diabetes-related complications include:
- Vision problems that can lead to blindness
- Peripheral vascular disease, or PAD, that can lead to poor circulation and even amputations
- Kidney disease (diabetes is the leading cause)
- Heart disease and stroke
- Gum disease
- Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, even a modest weight loss of 5 to 7 percent can help reduce your risk of diabetes complications.
- Stay active. Aim for 150 minutes of walking per week and add any moderate activity to keep you moving, such as gardening, biking or dancing.
- Maintain a balanced diet. Choose five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, along with low fat protein, dairy and whole grains.
If you are diagnosed with diabetes, the first course of treatment focuses on making lasting lifestyle changes that include weight loss, meal planning and exercise. Often, these changes can bring your blood-glucose levels into the normal range. If not, you may need medication —either oral medicines or insulin injections—that lower blood-sugar levels. People with diabetes must continually monitor their glucose levels, typically with a needle stick monitor that tests a drop of blood from their finger.
There is a great deal of ongoing research to find a cure for diabetes. For now, the most important thing to remember is that the more actively you manage your health and your lifestyle, the more likely you’ll delay or avoid diabetes.