Every day 5,200 new cases of diabetes are diagnosed in the U.S. At first, most feel devastated – told to change the way they eat, lose weight, exercise, take medication – it’s overwhelming. But, there is good news. Diabetes is a condition over which you, as an individual, have a great deal of control.
What is diabetes? Diabetes is a group of conditions that results in too much sugar in your blood. After you eat cereal and juice at breakfast, the food is broken down into a sugar called glucose, which floods into your bloodstream. Insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, is spilled into the blood to help glucose move from the bloodstream into muscles where it is burned for energy to keep your body functioning. Glucose may also be moved into fat cells to be stored for future use. With diabetes either your body no longer makes insulin (type 1) or your body can’t use the insulin it makes (type 2). The result in both cases is that glucose can’t get into cells and too much glucose builds up in the blood.
What causes diabetes? In most cases, it’s your genes. Over 8% of the U.S. population has diabetes – that’s close to 26 million people. Just because you carry the risk for diabetes doesn’t mean you will get it. People who stay slim, exercise regularly, don’t smoke, and eat generally healthy diets decrease their odds of developing diabetes no matter what their genetic profiles say.
What puts a person at risk for diabetes? The risks of developing diabetes increases with each of the following:
- Being 45 or older
- Being overweight
- Having a parent or close relative with diabetes
- Being African American, American Indian, Asian American, Pacific Islander or Hispanic/Latino American
- Having diabetes during pregnancy
- Giving birth to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds
- Having high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high triglycerides
- Exercising very little or not at all
- Having polycystic ovary syndrome
- Having dark, thickened skin around the neck or armpits (acanthosis nigricans)
- Having high blood glucose at previous screenings
What are the symptoms of diabetes? Diabetes often goes undetected for a long time because many people have no symptoms, or they ignore symptoms. See your doctor if you experience any of the following problems: being very thirsty; needing to urinate frequently; being very hungry; weight loss without any effort; feeling tired and weak; blurry vision; cuts and bruises that heal very slowly, or do not heal at all; tingling or numbness in your hands or feet; recurring or hard-to-heal infections; and annoying itching.
How is diabetes diagnosed? Your doctor screens for diabetes when you have blood tests. Everyone over the age of 45 should be screened. If everything is normal, screenings should be repeated every 3 years. Younger individuals need to be tested earlier if they have a number of the risk factors noted above. Children who are overweight should be tested periodically, too.
How do you manage diabetes? Diet, exercise, and medication all play a role in managing diabetes. Once you’re diagnosed your primary care doctor will help you organize your health care team – a certified diabetes educator (CDE) or registered dietitian (RD), eye doctor, podiatrist, and dentist. This group of health professionals will help you manage all aspects of your condition. The most important member of the team is YOU.
Knowledge is power – the more you know about diabetes the better you can take care of yourself and the healthier you will be.
For more information on diabetes see our latest book, The Diabetes Counter, 5th ed. Pocket Books, 2014, celebrating more than 20 years in print.