Diabetes rates in this country are climbing—so much so that experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are calling it an epidemic. Government statistics show that 9.8 million American women have the disease. That’s nearly 9 percent of all women in this country.
That’s scary news, since the risk for death among people with diabetes is about twice that of people without the disease. For American women, diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death.
As the numbers of overweight and obese men and women swell, the rate of diabetes climbs, too, causing a wave of health problems. Not only are people with diabetes more susceptible to various illnesses, they confront a worse prognosis than individuals without the disease.
People with diabetes face an increased risk of death from heart disease and an increased risk of stroke and hypertension. Contracting diabetes can also lead to kidney problems, eye disease and nerve damage. In severe cases, people become blind. Their kidneys may fail, requiring dialysis or a kidney transplant operation. Or they may require amputation, most often of the toes or foot, to stem gangrene. Periodontal disease also becomes more likely when you have diabetes.
21 million and counting …
In addition to the 15.1 million adults diagnosed with the disease in this country, 6 million people have the disease but haven’t been diagnosed. Almost 60 million people ages 20 and older are thought to be pre-diabetic—which means their level of blood glucose is high but does not yet classify them as diabetic. Unless these people make lifestyle changes, they will develop diabetes, too.
Yet, you don’t have to be overweight, have a genetic predisposition or be a certain age to get diabetes. Consider this: Type 2 diabetes, the form that develops in adults, is striking more people—and many of them have no family history of the disease. It’s true that certain factors like obesity or having a close family member with diabetes heightens your risk, but you can take preventive measures to help keep the disease at bay.
Factors you can control
To begin with, do you get little or no exercise? Inactivity is the most important risk factor for type 2 diabetes and may be to blame for half of all cases. Walking a few blocks every day or taking the stairs instead of the elevator are simple ways to jump-start your exercise regime.
Are you overweight? Some studies have shown that excess weight may increase your risk of getting the disease more than 10 times. Since obesity may contribute to insulin resistance, it’s important to eat healthy and follow a low-fat, low-sugar, high-fiber diet. All it takes are a few changes in your eating habits—choose whole-wheat bread over white bread, brown rice over white rice or an apple over a cracker.
Factors you can’t control
Other factors, such as your age, ethnicity and family history, come into play. For those over 40, take note: Your risk of contracting this illness goes up once you hit the big 4-0. In fact, almost one in five Americans ages 65 to 74 has diabetes. You also need to be aware of your elevated risk factors if you are African-American, Hispanic American, Native American, Asian American or a Pacific Islander. People in these categories tend to be at a higher risk for diabetes.
A close family history—meaning a close relative such as a sibling or parent—of the disease also increases your odds. So, too, does having had gestational diabetes or having had a baby weighing more than 9 pounds at birth. If you were never screened for gestational diabetes but gave birth to a large infant, you may have had this temporary form of insulin intolerance without knowing it.
Protect your health
While you can’t do much about the predispositions, you can take charge of your life by:
- getting regular screenings
- keeping on top of any irregular symptoms such as excessive thirst or extreme hunger
- discussing any changes with your doctor
- exercising regularly
- maintaining healthy eating habits
Diabetes is a chronic, progressive condition that can go undetected for years. That’s because many symptoms, such as extreme hunger, excessive thirst, increased fatigue, blurry vision, frequent urination and irritability, don’t seem that out of the ordinary. But left untreated, diabetes can cause heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, circulatory problems and even death. The good news is that there is a preventive plan. By following the guidelines above, you can significantly lower your risk of contracting the disease.