James A. Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a freelance writer and consultant in sports medicine. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Peterson was director of sports medicine with StairMaster. Until that time, he was professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy.
1. NOT SO SWEET. Diabetes is a chronic long-term metabolic condition that is characterized by abnormally high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. To use glucose, the body requires insulin, which is a hormone made in the pancreas. Insulin is important because it has an essential role in regulating blood glucose levels. Accordingly, diabetes results when either an individual’s body does not make enough insulin or the insulin in a person’s body does not work the way it should.
2. A COLOSSAL PROBLEM. According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2012, more than 29 million Americans had diabetes, of which more than 8 million cases were undiagnosed. Furthermore, as either an underlying or a contributing cause of death, diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. Even more alarming is the fact that many health professionals believe that diabetes may be substantially underreported as a cause of death.
3. DOUBLE TROUBLE. Diabetes can be grouped into one of two major classifications. Typically diagnosed in childhood, Type I diabetes occurs when the immune system basically destroys the cells of the pancreas that are responsible for producing insulin. As a result, the body lacks the ability to produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar levels adequately. Although this form of diabetes can be managed, it cannot be cured. Type II diabetes, on the other hand, occurs when the pancreas does not make enough insulin. The most common form of diabetes (accounting for at least 90% of all cases of the condition) can be improved, and in some instances reversed, by making positive lifestyle choices (eating a healthy diet, exercising on a regular basis, and losing excess weight).
4. DANGEROUS TERRITORY. A large number of individuals (a quantity thought to be at least 41 million) are believed to have blood glucose levels that are higher than normal but not yet high enough to warrant a diagnosis of diabetes. Individuals in this danger zone are at a relatively high risk of developing Type II diabetes, as well as at an increased risk of having heart disease. Although people in this situation (a condition also known as prediabetes) tend to be middle-aged or older, that is, ages 40 to 74 years, the number of children and teenagers with it is on the upswing.
5. MOVING FORCES. Although the exact cause of Type I diabetes is unknown, a number of specific risk factors for this condition exist, including a family history of either the ailment or autoimmune diseases, viral infections during infancy, being the child of an older mother, or being of northern European or Mediterranean descent. The underlying determinants of Type II diabetes, on the other hand, are easier to identify. This condition typically (but not exclusively) occurs in older overweight individuals. In addition, a family history of the disease and being of African American, Hispanic American, and Native American descent also are major risk factors.
6. SITUATION ANALYSIS. Blood tests are typically used to confirm the diagnosis of either classification of diabetes (Type I or Type II), as well as the condition of prediabetes. Because an individual with Type II diabetes may not exhibit symptoms of the disease, it is particularly important to diagnose the condition as early as possible before complications occur.
7. AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION. Unfortunately, no proven way to prevent Type I diabetes exists. On the other hand, some preliminary research has been conducted that suggests that supplementing a person’s diet with relatively high levels of vitamin D (for the first 30 years of the individual’s life) might help make it less likely for that person to develop the condition. Type II diabetes, on the other hand, is highly preventable. In that regard, exercise and sensible weight management are a sound prescription for prevention.
8. DEJECTION, DESPAIR, AND DESPONDENCY. A number of studies indicate that a link exists between depression and diabetes. The underlying basis of such a relationship seems to be related to an interaction between high blood sugar levels and a neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with depression that makes individuals with diabetes more prone to depression.
9. MISLEADING MYTHS, MISCONCEPTIONS, AND MISINFORMATION. Far too often, it seems that much of what the public believes about diabetes is simply not true. Such inaccurate information can have devastating consequences (i.e., steps that can help prevent or control the disease are not undertaken). For example, some people believe that diabetes is not all that serious a disease. Little do they know that more people die from diabetes each year than from breast cancer and AIDS combined.
10. AN ALARMING TREND. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of cases of diabetes and prediabetes continues to rise among all ethnic groups and ages. In fact, more than one third of all Americans currently have prediabetes. As such, if these individuals don’t take a proactive approach to their condition, as many as 30% of them will have full-blown Type II diabetes within 5 years.