Diabetes has always been a serious problem in the United States. It is a disease where blood glucose levels are above normal because the body either produces too little insulin or cannot use the insulin that it produces. Untreated, diabetes can lead to serious health consequences including blindness, kidney failure, amputations, heart disease, and death. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). There are two types of diabetes, Type 1 diabetes (juvenile onset diabetes) and Type 2 diabetes (adult onset diabetes).
Both types of diabetes exhibit similar symptoms or no symptoms at all. These symptoms include excessive thirst, frequent urination, unexplained weight loss, extreme hunger, changes in vision, peripheral neuropathy, fatigue, dry skin, and an increase in infections. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Type 1 diabetics may also experience nausea and vomiting. Type 1 diabetes accounts for 5 percent to 10 percent of all diagnosed cases and is generally diagnosed in childhood or early adolescence. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). While the causes of Type 1 diabetes are still being explored, it “is suspected to follow exposure to an ‘environmental trigger,’ such as an unidentified virus, stimulating an immune attack against the beta cells of the pancreas (that produce insulin) in some genetically predisposed people.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
While Type 1 diabetes is a serious problem, the current diabetes epidemic focuses on the dramatic increase in the incidence of Type 2 diabetes in American society. Type 2 diabetes used to be referred to as adult-onset diabetes. However, recently, a rapidly increasing number of children and young adults are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Currently, about 17 million Americans are believed to have diabetes, but the true number is unknown because many people are unaware they have the illness. (Emedicine). Furthermore, approximately 1,000,000 are diagnosed with diabetes each year. (Emedicine).
The reason that diabetes is considered an epidemic is that Type 2 diabetes is largely preventable and is linked to certain lifestyles, such as obesity and poverty. (New York Times). It is also considered an epidemic because more and more young people are developing Type 2 diabetes. In addition, certain races, including African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are at higher risk for type 2 diabetes. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). For example, African Americans and Hispanics are approximately twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. Because Type 2 diabetes is also linked to unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity, it is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society. In fact, more than 40 million Americans currently have pre-diabetes.
It is no secret that modern Americans eat diets that are high in fat and sugar, which has led to an obesity epidemic. In fact, the dramatic increase in the incidence of diabetes is directly linked to the increase in obesity. (Emedicine). Therefore, in order to understand the causes of Type 2 diabetes, it is important to understand the causes of obesity in America. Of course, bad eating habits contribute to obesity, but the problem is more complex. For example, both diabetes and obesity are highly linked to poverty, suggesting that lower-class Americans have less access to healthy food options. In addition, those races that have a higher risk of developing diabetes are also generally financially disadvantaged. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the increased risk associated with certain races from poverty.
Furthermore, obesity and diabetes are linked to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Like healthy food, opportunities for exercise are less available in many poor neighborhoods. For example, many children and adults do not have ready access to recreational facilities, schools are reducing opportunities for exercise, and streets are not safe for outdoor exercise.
In addition, because opportunities for outdoor play and exercise have decreased, many parents do not know how to teach their children to engage in physical activity within the home. Furthermore, technological advances have led to a decrease in physical activity. People no longer engage in physically demanding occupations. In addition, between television, the internet, game systems, and cell phones, recreation has become increasingly more sedentary; children would rather engage in passive entertainment than become involved in physical play.
Treatment and Prevention
There is some good news about the diabetes epidemic. Because Type 2 diabetes is linked to lifestyle choices, there is much that people can do to prevent it. For example, people who are diagnosed with prediabetes, which is an elevation in blood sugar that dramatically increases the risk for future diabetes, can reverse their condition by losing a moderate amount of weight and increasing physical activity. For example, a reduction in body weight of just 5 to 10 percent is sufficient to help reduce diabetes risk.
In addition, 30 minutes of moderate activity daily can help prevent diabetes. In addition, some medications have been linked to a delay in onset of diabetes, although whether or not the medications are sufficient to prevent the eventual onset of diabetes has not yet been determined. In addition, while other risk factors like race and family history are unavoidable, people in high-risk groups can be vigilant about monitoring their health status, so that they can actively manage diabetes when it onsets.
In fact, disease management is the preferred treatment regime. Type 2 diabetics can manage their disease by eating healthy, losing weight, and engaging in regular physical activity. Furthermore, diabetics need to monitor blood sugar levels. If diet and exercise are insufficient to manage the disease, Type 2 diabetics might also use oral medicines or insulin to control the disease. In addition, because of the secondary diseases that are linked to diabetes, it is important for diabetics to see specialists like ophthalmologists, cardiologists, and podiatrists. The medical community is also looking for cures for diabetes including “pancreas transplantation, islet cell transplantation (islet cells produce insulin), artificial pancreas development, [and] genetic manipulation.” (Emedicine).
Currently, one in six deaths in America is linked to diabetes. Furthermore, health complications from diabetes and diabetes-related diseases affect millions of Americans. Because Type 2 diabetes is effecting a younger population, these diabetes-related diseases are also affecting younger members of the population. As a result, the economic costs of diabetes are dramatically increasing. Health care costs are only one part of the economic costs of diabetes; diabetes causes people to miss work, which exacts a similar economic toll.
One of the most alarming elements of the current diabetes epidemic is that diabetes is largely preventable. Type 2 diabetes is linked to obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Those people at risk of developing diabetes can reduce their future risk by losing a moderate amount of weight and engaging in regular physical activity. Failure to do so can have grave consequences, because the treatment for diabetes involves similar lifestyle changes. While medications can help in diabetes management, medicine alone cannot mitigate the effects of the disease. Furthermore, while scientists are researching cures for diabetes, the current medical emphasis is on managing diabetes, rather than curing it.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Frequently Asked Questions: Basics About
Diabetes.” CDC. 2006. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 27 Feb. 2006 .
“Declare War on Diabetes.” New York Times 5 Feb. 2006: 4-11.
Emedicine. “Diabetes Overview.” Emedicine. 2006. Web MD. 27 Feb. 2006