Diabetes Alert Day
How to avoid becoming a
statistic in America’s
American Diabetes Association Alert Day is observed annually on the fourth Tuesday in March. This one-day “wake-up call” informs the American public about the seriousness of diabetes and encourages all to take the diabetes risk test and learn about your family’s history of diabetes. This year, I had a conversation with Bob Russell, Upstate New York Executive Director of the American Diabetes Associates (ADA) and Felix Perez, Market Director for the ADA in Albany.
There are some shocking stats on diabetes: Almost 10% of the American population is affected by diabetes. Nearly 1 in 4 American adults living with diabetes are unaware they have it. Bob Russell was personally compelled to change that statistic because he is one of those Americans. He was twenty-five years old when he was diagnosed with type 1 Diabetes. “I was in the best shape of my life. I wasn’t sure what it meant. I certainly didn’t realize that it was a life-long disease that I would be dealing with. I remember joking with my doctor, ‘a few less beers, a few less chicken wings, right?’ I didn’t understand the complete change in lifestyle,” said Russell.
Three types of diabetes
There are three main types of diabetes – type 1, type 2, and gestational. Understanding what type and what the options are available is part of the problem of living with diabetes. “It’s a multi-pronged disease,” Russell begins. “That’s where the confusion begins. Diabetes is often a punchline in movies and TV shows. ‘Oh, there’s a plate of chocolate; you must have diabetes.’ That’s not the reality of it. We have kids as young as ten months old being diagnosed with this; it really is an auto-immune disease.” In all types, diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas is no longer able to make insulin or when the body cannot make good use of the insulin it produces.
What you need to know about diabetes
•Type 1.The CDC estimates that nearly 1.6 million Americans have it, including about 187,000 children and adolescents. When you have type 1 diabetes, your body produces very little or no insulin, which means that you need daily insulin injections to maintain blood glucose levels under control. Type 1 diabetes occurs at every age, in people of every race, and of every shape and size.
•Type 2.Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes and accounts for around 90% of all cases. It means that your body doesn’t use insulin properly. While some people can control their blood sugar levels with healthy eating and exercise, others may need medication or insulin to help manage it.
•Gestational diabetes (GDM). This type of diabetes consists of high blood glucose during pregnancy and is associated with complications to both mother and child. It happens to millions of women. GDM usually disappears after pregnancy, but women affected, and their children are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Health risks of uncontrolled diabetes
Diabetes is treatable; it does become dangerous when glucose levels are uncontrolled. Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die from heart disease than adults without diabetes. “This is called ‘the silent disease,'” adds Russell. Undiagnosed and uncontrolled diabetes leads to a wide array of health problems like high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and high blood sugar levels. This is a long-term process, a development that occurs over the years where a normally healthy person becomes less active over time gains bodyweight, which leads to a lifetime of damage to vital organs. “By the time you realize what is happening, that damage is already done and can’t be reversed.”
Diabetes has been proven to affect your vision, one of the warning signs that Bob Russell recalled before his diagnosis. “I was having problems with my vision. I got new glasses. Two weeks later, I went for blood work. That’s when I got a call from the nurse that I needed to meet the doctor in the emergency room right now. My blood sugar levels were 790. I was feeling fine, but there were symptoms that were leading up to this. Excessive thirst, frequent urination. When you are active, you don’t think these are a sign of diabetes. That’s the problem.”
Common diabetes complications
High blood sugar can damage blood vessels in the eyes which are the leading cause of blindness in adults age 20-74 according to the National Eye Institute. This is why a yearly eye exam is important.
High blood sugar affects the hands and feet. Uncontrolled blood sugar levels can also lead to chronic brain damage.
The American Heart Association considers diabetes to be one of the seven major controllable risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Kidney disease. Diabetes is a major cause of kidney failure and other kidney problems.
Women with any type of diabetes during pregnancy risk a number of complications if they do not carefully monitor and manage their condition.
Know your risk
Since diabetes can strike anyone at any age, at any time, the message of Diabetes Alert Day is to know your risk. “One of the tools we use is the ADA Risk Test. It’s seven simple questions you take; all it takes is 60 seconds of your time,” said Perez. The test collects your age, gender, family history, high blood pressure history, level of physical activity, race, height, and weight. A high score on the online Risk Test (five or higher) means an individual has a significant risk for having undiagnosed pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes; however, only a blood test can determine a diagnosis. In my case, it led to having a conversation on my risk of type 2 with my doctor during my yearly visit. During my doctor’s appointment, we discussed how losing 10-15 pounds can make a big difference, as well as the role of even occasional tobacco use, affects my cholesterol levels.
Pre-diabetes affects almost 88 million Americans. The American Heart Association described pre-diabetes as a point where your blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not yet crossing the threshold of a diabetes diagnosis. “Three years ago there were 84 million people living with pre-diabetes, meaning that they are not there yet, but they are headed in that direction. The CDC just released their latest report; the number is now 88 million people. We are going in the wrong direction,” added Russell. Many people with pre-diabetes develop type 2 diabetes within ten years. Overweight adults over the age of 45 with a family history of type 2 diabetes are at risk. We also know that African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and some Asian Americans are at higher risk. You can make lifestyle and health changes, like losing 10-15 pounds, for example, to lower your risk of advancing to type 2 diabetes.
Knowledge is key. That is the message from diabetes alert day. Take the ADA Self Test. Talk with your doctor about your family history and personal risk. Have your A1C levels checked with a simple blood test, if recommended. Most importantly, stay active and live well. You can live with diabetes. While there is no cure, millions of people live healthy lives. The American Diabetes Association has a great online resource, the ADA Support Community, a dedicated and passionate online community that shares education, health recipes, and activity/exercise workouts to keep you living your best life.