Diabetes is on the fast track to becoming America’s number one health crisis. Upwards of 29 million people in the United States currently have the disease, but this number is expected to rise—dramatically. According to the most recent estimates, approximately 40 percent—or two out of every five Americans—will develop type 2 diabetes at some point during their adult lives.
Diabetes develops when the body is unable to properly use and store glucose, a form of sugar that cells rely on for energy. Diabetes is a complex disease. A relatively small number of people—mainly children—develop type 1 diabetes, an auto-immune condition in which the pancreas stops producing insulin, the hormone that helps convert glucose into energy. Approximately 3 million Americans have type 1 diabetes.
The vast majority of people who develop diabetes are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. With type 2 diabetes, insulin is still produced, but the body is unable to use it properly due to “insulin resistance,” a condition in which cells become less sensitive to insulin and less able to use glucose from the bloodstream.
When insulin doesn’t function as it should, glucose accumulates in the blood instead of being used by the cells. This leads to high blood sugars. Signs that someone has type 2 diabetes often go silently undetected, sometimes for years. Anyone who notices one or more of the following symptoms is urged to get a check up.
9 out of every 10 diagnosed cases of type 2 diabetes could be avoided by exercising more, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and losing weight.
When the body detects high blood sugar levels, the kidneys respond by attempting to flush out excess glucose in the urine. This can result in increased urine production and the need to urinate more frequently. If you find yourself going to the bathroom more often, especially if you are waking at night to urinate, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about whether you need a check up. Night waking to urinate can also be related to other health conditions.
Increased Thirst & Dry Mouth
Producing excess urine can lead to fluid loss and dehydration, which is why people with undetected diabetes often experience excessive thirst or dry mouth. People may notice they are drinking larger and larger amounts of water and other fluids and still not feeling like their thirst has been quenched.
When someone develop type 2 diabetes, the ability of glucose to enter the body's cells for use as energy is impaired. When less glucose is available to cells, the body can react by feeling hungry, even if food was recently consumed.
Unexplained Weight Loss
When less glucose is available, the body is also programmed to start burning fat and muscle for energy. This can lead to unexpected and sometimes rapid weight loss.
High blood glucose can also slow circulation, which reduces the amount of oxygen and other nutrients being delivered to cells. As a result, extreme tiredness and fatigue may develop.
Headaches & Difficulty Concentrating
The brain requires ample hydration for optimal function, so whenever the body enters a state of dehydration, as can happen when blood sugars are high and increased urine output is needed, headaches or brain fog and fuzzy thinking can be the unfortunate result.
High blood sugar may cause the lens of the eye to swell, which can lead to blurred vision. Once blood sugar returns to normal range, vision changes tend to disappear. Still, the American Diabetes Association recommends people with type 2 diabetes to have a complete eye exam soon after they have been diagnosed.
Slow Wound Healing & Increased Infection Risk
High levels of blood sugar may impair the body's natural healing process and ability to fight infections. Experiencing a normal scrape or cut, for example, might take an excessive time to heal in someone with untreated diabetes, and increase their risk for infection. In women with diabetes, bladder and vaginal yeast infections tend to more common.
Foot Pain & Numbness
When diabetes is left undetected or untreated, chronic high blood sugars can cause damage to nerves throughout the body, a condition known as diabetic neuropathy. When neuropathy develops, people may notice numbness, tingling, or pain in the extremities, especially in the legs and feet.
Diabetes Risk Factors
Type 2 diabetes is often called a “lifestyle disease” because certain factors that put people at increased risk for type 2 diabetes come from lifestyle choices they've made. These factors include include lack of physical activity and obesity, an unhealthy diet, and smoking. Smoking may be the worst. According to researchers, smokers are roughly 50 percent more likely to develop diabetes than nonsmokers; heavy smokers are at even higher risk.
Other factors that increase the risk for type 2 diabetes include a family history of diabetes, developing gestational diabetes during pregnancy, and high blood pressure.
Race can also play a role. Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanic Americans are almost 1.5 times as likely to develop diabetes compared to Asian Americans or Caucasians.
Age also matters. Type 2 diabetes is most commonly diagnosed in adults over the age of 45. However, as obesity rates increase among children and teens, the number of diagnosed cases of “pre-diabetes” in younger adults is also increasing. When someone has pre-diabetes, blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not yet high enough to be classified as type 2 diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2012, 86 million Americans age 20 and older had pre-diabetes.
Diagnosing & Treating Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is typically diagnosed with a glycated hemoglobin (A1C) test that measures average blood sugar levels over the past two to three months. When diabetes is diagnosed, the goal of treatment is to bring blood glucose levels back within normal range. Common first-line treatment options include dietary changes, weight control, and increased physical activity. Diabetes patients may meet with a nutritionist or certified diabetes educator to create a lifestyle modification plan. To see if blood glucose management is working, blood sugars are monitored, typically in the morning before eating and two hours after most meals, using a small device called a glucometer.
If a lifestyle interventions are not successful in controlling blood glucose, other treatments include the use of insulin-sensitizing drugs, a class of prescription medications that help cells use become better able to use insulin. Another option is to use injected insulin. If a woman with type 2 diabetes become pregnant, or develops gestational diabetes, insulin is generally prescribed.
Preventing Type 2 Diabetes
Some good news about diabetes? According to Harvard University’s School of Public Health, 9 out of every 10 diagnosed cases of type 2 diabetes could be avoided by exercising more, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and losing weight. Research shows that losing 7 to 10 percent of your current weight can cut the chance of developing type 2 diabetes in half.
In its earliest stages, diabetes may only be apparent by testing blood glucose levels. If you think you are risk for diabetes, or have noticed symptoms, put your mind at ease by contacting your medical provider and getting checked.
Who Should Be Tested for Diabetes?
According to the National Institutes of Health, anyone age 45 or older should consider getting tested for diabetes. People younger than 45 should consider testing if they are overweight, obese, or have one or more additional risk factors for diabetes. Initial screening for diabetes involves checking blood glucose levels of a blood sample taken after fasting overnight. The accepted normal range for a fasting blood glucose is generally between 70 and 99 mg/dL. A fasting level above 100 may require further testing.