Diabetes Awareness: What We Don’t Know is Killing Us

11/17/2017 01:40 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2017
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Diabetes is a bigger problem than most people think. Half of American adults are affected, and roughly a third of those have no idea. Every 21 seconds, another person is diagnosed, while days, weeks, months and even years go by without millions of others realizing the aptly titled “silent killer” is slowly chipping away at their health.

Why is diabetes so elusive? The simple answer is there are no obvious symptoms for type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 95 percent of all cases. That helps to explain why roughly eight million people are walking around with the disease and doing nothing to treat it.

The cost of this lack of awareness is staggering. As a nation, we spend $322 billion annually treating diabetes, but that number is far less personal than the realization that healthcare costs are almost two and a half times higher for someone with diabetes, largely because there are so many devastating complications. Interestingly, it’s not diabetes so much as uncontrolled diabetes that causes all the problems. If you’ve never been tested for diabetes, don’t assume you don’t have it. Here are four often misunderstood realities that can drastically impact your health.

  1. You may be high risk. Do you have parents or siblings with type 2 diabetes? Are you carrying extra weight, particularly around your middle? Do you eat well and exercise? The American Diabetes Association has a good initial test that can help put your personal risk in perspective. If you fall into the high-risk category, talk with your provider about a plan. You will need to be screened for diabetes sooner and more often.
  2. There are warning signs. Diabetes tests also screen for prediabetes, a condition marked by high blood sugar levels, but not high enough to be considered diabetes. Roughly 70 percent of people with prediabetes will develop diabetes, but really prediabetes is more of a warning than a sentence. Lifestyle changes like losing weight and exercising can decrease the risk of developing diabetes by more than half, but 90 percent of adults with prediabetes have no idea they are tempting fate. If you are diagnosed with prediabetes, work with your provider to address the underlying causes so you can avoid developing diabetes down the road.
  3. You can have advanced diabetes and still have no symptoms. People can feel well with blood glucose levels in the 200 range (normal levels fall between 70 and 99), but that toxicity is wreaking havoc on the rest of their body. Untreated, diabetes can affect virtually every organ and drastically increase the risk for stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney failure, blindness and nerve damage. The adage “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” simply does not apply here. What you don’t know may actually be killing you. Starting at age 45, get screened for diabetes every three years, and more often if you are higher risk.
  4. Diabetes is largely preventable. This is a tough reality for the 30 million people who suffer from type 2 diabetes, but promising for the rest of us. Five lifestyle factors combine to account for nine out of 10 new diabetes cases – physical activity, diet, smoking habits, alcohol consumption and body fat. Modest lifestyle changes in any one of these areas will decrease risk and, combined, can lower the risk for diabetes by as much as 90 percent. The take-away here is that even little changes matter, so even a five pound weight loss and some type of exercise can make a big difference.

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., but it doesn’t have to be. Obesity, poor eating and bad exercise habits are all risk factors, but the lack of awareness surrounding diabetes has made even treatable conditions devastating for patients diagnosed too late. If you don’t know your risk and have never been screened, talk to your provider. You may be the one in ten to learn you have prediabetes with enough time to reverse the condition. You may be fortunate enough to get an early diagnosis so you can manage diabetes before it manages you. November is Diabetes Awareness Month, but with this silent killer, awareness all year is what will really save your life.

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