Be alert to the symptoms of diabetes.
Nearly 24 million people have diabetes in the U.S., according to the American Diabetes Association. That’s about 8 percent of the population. It’s even more prevalent among older adults: 23 percent of people over age 60 have diabetes. If you’re over 45, consider getting tested for diabetes, especially if you’re overweight.
This is a serious condition because it can result in vision loss, kidney failure, amputations, heart disease, and stroke, among other things.
In addition to the 24 million who have the disease, a whopping 57 million people have pre-diabetes, which means that their blood sugar levels are high but not yet in the diabetic range. This condition can last for several years with no symptoms.
When we eat, a sugar called glucose is released into our blood. The pancreas makes the hormone insulin, whose function is to move the glucose from the blood to muscle, fat, and liver cells where the body can use it as fuel.
Diabetes is the result of the pancreas not making enough insulin, the body not responding normally to insulin, or both, causing high blood sugar.
Type 1 diabetes is typically diagnosed in childhood, though many aren’t diagnosed until they’re in their twenties. These individuals make little or no insulin and have to take insulin shots every day. Doctors don’t really know what causes it, although genetics, viruses, and autoimmune disorders may all be factors.
Most people with diabetes have type 2. Historically, its onset has been in adulthood, but more and more young people are being diagnosed with it. In Type 2, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels normal. Many people with Type 2 diabetes don’t know they have it, and it’s becoming more common as obesity rates rise and people engage in less exercise.
The last major kind of diabetes is called gestational diabetes, and it occurs during a pregnancy. These women are at greatly increased risk to develop type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.
Because type 2 diabetes develops slowly—type 1 comes on quickly and is often diagnosed in the emergency room—some people may have no symptoms at all. But if you or someone you love has blurred vision; fatigue; and increased appetite, thirst, and urination, along with high blood sugar, diabetes may be the culprit.
People at risk for diabetes—those aged 45 or older; smokers; people who are overweight or don’t exercise at least three times a week; or have blood pressure over 140/90, a triglyceride level higher than 249, or HDL (“good”) cholesterol lower than 36; or who have a parent or sibling with the disease—can make some lifestyle changes that can radically improve their diabetes.
Studies show that exercising five times a week and losing weight by eating healthfully can cut their risk in half. It also helps tremendously in managing diabetes if you already have it.
A healthy diet for those at risk for diabetes means not eating trans fats, sugar, white flour, white rice, or dry cereals. Processed and fried foods are especially bad. Eat lots of fiber, especially from fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and oatmeal. Fiber helps to keep blood sugar level. Don’t smoke or drink alcohol, and try to find a diabetes or even pre-diabetes support group whether in your community or online, such as the one run by WebMD at exchanges.webmd.com/diabetes-exchange.
And if you want more information on diabetes prevention and management, you can visit www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov, the website of the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse, affiliated with the National Institutes of Health.
Don’t forget to keep your doctor in the loop. He or she will know how much and what kind of exercise is good for you, and what kind of diet you need to be on. Don’t make any major lifestyle changes without first consulting your doctor.
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