November is National Diabetes Month. If you, a loved one, or a coworker struggles with this common disease, share this article and expand the conversation around effectively treating—and thriving—with diabetes.
Diabetes is one of the most common diseases among both adults and youth in the United States. As of 2018, more than 1 in 10 Americans have the disease, including 7.3 million who are currently undiagnosed. Additionally, more than 1 in 4 Americans age 65 and older have diabetes, both diagnosed and undiagnosed.
While diabetes can be a debilitating disease—and can contribute to an early death when left uncontrolled—there are multiple ways to find support for the condition. Read on to learn more about this disease and what can be done to overcome it in pursuit of a full and healthy life.
The Facts: What is Diabetes?
To understand diabetes, it’s important to understand your blood glucose (or blood sugar). Your blood glucose is your main source of energy, and it comes from the food you eat. But this glucose needs help getting into the cells that need it for energy. This is where insulin comes into play. Insulin—a hormone created by the pancreas—helps the glucose in your blood make it to your cells, where the glucose is then used for energy.
However, sometimes your body doesn’t make enough insulin, or it doesn’t use the insulin well. This means that the glucose that should be going to your cells ends up staying in your blood. Over time, this abundance of glucose in your blood causes health problems and is called diabetes.
Different Types of Diabetes
If you’re familiar with diabetes, you may know that there are two main types:
- Type 1 Diabetes: This is when your immune system attacks and destroys the cells in your pancreas that make insulin. This means your body has little or no insulin that can be used to help convert glucose into energy. It’s usually diagnosed in children and young adults, but it can appear at any age.
- Type 2 Diabetes: This is the most common type of diabetes. It happens when your body does not make or use insulin well. It can occur at any age, but most often occurs in middle-aged and older people.
In addition to types 1 and 2, there are other less common forms of diabetes, including gestational diabetes (which can occur in women when they are pregnant) and monogenic diabetes, which is an inherited form of the disease.
The Risks Factors for Diabetes
As type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes for Americans, it’s important to understand the risk factors that can increase your chances of developing it. They include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Age 45 or older
- A family history of diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Low HDL (good) cholesterol, or high triglycerides (fat in the blood)
- Not being physically active
- Being African American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander
- A history of gestational diabetes or given birth to a baby weighing 9 pounds or more
- A history of heart disease or stroke
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (also called PCOS)
- Acanthosis nigricans—dark, thick, and velvety skin around your neck or armpits
The Symptoms of Diabetes
Symptoms of type 1 diabetes can start within a matter of weeks. In contrast, symptoms of type 2 diabetes often develop slowly—over the course of several years—and can be so mild that you may not notice them. Regardless, you should speak with your onsite clinician if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms below:
- Increased thirst and urination
- Increased hunger
- Blurred vision
- Numbness or tingling in the feet or hands
- Sores that do not heal
- Unexplained weight loss
Diabetes can also be identified if you experience related health problems, like heart trouble or a stroke.
How to Prevent Diabetes
While some of the risk factors above—like family history—are out of your control, the good news is that you can do a lot to lower your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. The most important habits to start today include:
- Losing excess weight and keeping it off--you may be able to prevent or delay diabetes by losing 5 to 7 percent of your current weight
- If you weigh 200 pounds, this would be losing about 10 to 14 pounds
- Getting regular exercise—your long-term goal should be to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week; if you’ve not been active for a while, talk with your onsite clinician about helpful tips and remember to start slow!
- Introducing healthier foods—a drastic diet change is unlikely to stick, so plan for small, achievable changes: eating smaller portions, or introducing a new veggie, or exchanging a soda for a glass of water a few times a week
What to Do if You’re Diagnosed
If you or a loved one has already been diagnosed with diabetes (or prediabetes), the first step is to not panic! While diabetes is a serious disease, there are various treatment options that can help make the condition manageable. These treatment options, when combined with lifestyle changes recommended by your clinician, can result in a full and healthy life even for those with diabetes.
If you’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes, it means that your blood glucose levels are higher than normal. However, they’re not high enough to be called diabetes. About 1 in 3 Americans has prediabetes, and it is serious because it raises your chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
Fortunately, your onsite clinician will likely encourage the prevention tips above, like losing excess weight, becoming more active, and making small changes to your diet over time. These lifestyle changes can help return your blood glucose levels to a normal range.
If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, the most important step is to partner with your onsite care team or primary care physician on a diabetes management plan that is going to work for you. Your care team will likely advise you on the following:
- Know Your Diabetes ABCs—your ABCs stand for your A1C test (which measures blood glucose), Blood pressure, and Cholesterol; your goal is to get all three levels to manageable ranges:
- Your A1C test below 7 percent*
- Your blood pressure below 140/90*
- Your LDL cholesterol and triglycerides lowered*, and your HDL cholesterol raised*
- Stop Smoking—both diabetes and smoking narrows your blood vessels, which makes your heart work harder and can cause serious complications to your health
- Follow Your Meal Plan—your care team will help make a meal plan for you that will improve your ABCs above; it will likely include more fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meats like chicken, turkey, and fish, and water instead of sugary drinks
- Make Physical Activity a Routine—always check with your care team about the amount and types of exercise you should do with diabetes; for most people, your long-term goal should be to work up to 30 minutes or more of physical activity five days a week
- Take Your Medicine—there are various medications for diabetes, including insulin injections and insulin pumps; your care team will decide what’s best for you, but make sure that you are taking what’s prescribed as recommended, and ask your clinician if you have any questions about how to take your medication(s)
- Cope in Healthy Ways—getting a diabetes diagnosis, or learning to live with your diabetes, can be a challenging and often exhausting reality; talk with your care team about ways to mentally cope, including a diabetes support group, yoga, meditation, a rewarding hobby, and/or a mental health counselor
*Everyone’s ABC’s, even those with diabetes, may look different. Your care team will help to determine what your ABCs goals should look like for you.
Diabetes is a Treatable Condition
In honor of November as National Diabetes Month, remember that diabetes is a manageable condition that doesn’t need to control your life. By understanding the disease and the ways to effectively prevent or treat it, you can avoid the risks of unmanaged diabetes and continue to live a healthy, vibrant life.
And if you know someone who has diabetes or was recently diagnosed, forward them this article and use it to start a discussion around better managing and understanding the condition.