By Richard Fleming, M.D.
A major disease epidemic is sweeping the country, but it is not getting much media attention. This disease has rapidly increased year by year. Almost 2,000,000 people each year are coming down with this illness, twice as many as ten years ago. The disease is responsible for much suffering. It shortens people’s life spans. It causes pain. It can lead to organ failure.
What is this epidemic? It goes by the name diabetes. Diabetes is where one’s blood sugar is too high. Sugar is an important fuel for the body. It allows our muscles to work. It provides energy for our brain to function. But when the sugar level in our blood goes too high, it can cause major problems. Over time, if untreated, high blood sugar can cause kidneys to fail, nerves to be damaged, eyes to be damaged, hardening of the arteries to get worse, we have a harder time fighting off infections, and other problems.
How does a person know if they have diabetes? Sometimes high blood sugar can cause more frequent urination. It can make one unusually thirsty. Sometimes a person is more tired or gets more frequent infections. But many times people have no symptoms at all. As many as one-third of all people who have diabetes do not know they have it, because they have no symptoms and have never been checked.
Diabetes is diagnosed by a blood test to check the sugar level. Recommendations from experts about how often to be checked for diabetes vary. But most doctors agree it is a good idea to be tested if you’ve never been checked before. After age 45, even if your blood sugar is normal, it is a good idea to be checked at least every 3 years. People with a higher risk of diabetes (those who are overweight have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or who have diabetes in their family) should be checked more often. The best person to give you specific advice is your own doctor.
Diabetes can be treated with medicine, but we will not address that topic in this article.
A related condition which is getting more attention is pre-diabetes. This is when a person’s blood sugar is higher than normal, but not in the diabetic range. Typically, someone with pre-diabetes has a fasting blood sugar between 100 and 126. People with pre-diabetes are at high risk of developing diabetes and need to have their blood sugar monitored more frequently. If one has pre-diabetes, it may be possible to prevent diabetes by watching the diet, getting to a normal weight, and regular exercise. By carefully following these lifestyle changes, one’s blood sugar can often be kept under control.
The epidemic of diabetes is largely due to changing lifestyles, including more obesity, less exercise, and unhealthy eating. By paying attention to these three factors, it may be possible to avoid diabetes. And think of all the other benefits. One’s clothes may fit better. One’s energy will improve. And less risk of health problems down the road.
— Dr. Fleming is a regional medical director of Partnership HealthPlan of California. PHC is a non-profit community based health care organization that contracts with the State to administer Medi-Cal benefits through local care providers, to ensure Medi-Cal recipients have access to comprehensive, cost-effective health care. First offering services in Solano County in 1994, PHC now provides quality health care to over 473,500 members in 14 Northern California counties – Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Lassen, Marin, Mendocino, Modoc, Napa, Shasta, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Trinity and Yolo.