Diabetes Awareness Month: Disease a near-epidemic in the U.S.

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In his long career, Wilford Brimley has appeared in popular movies like “Cocoon,” “The Natural” and “The China Syndrome,” but mention his name and the first thing that comes to mind probably is one word:


The 84-year-old actor did television ads in the 1990s for Liberty Medical’s diabetes testing supplies. Brimley’s pronunciation of the medical term generated tons of memes and parody videos.

But in reality, diabetes is no laughing matter.

“Government studies show that one in 10 people in the U.S. has diabetes,” says Dr. Stephan Kowalyk, a Greensburg endocrinologist. “It’s estimated that it will be one in three in 20 years.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , that works out to more than 30 million people with the disease, although one in four might not even be aware they have it.

The numbers include 400,000 in Western Pennsylvania, says Julie Heverly, executive director of the American Diabetes Association of Pittsburgh.

Incidence of the disease in this country is “driven by overweight and inactivity,” Kowalyk says, and it’s become a problem of almost epidemic proportions.

No wonder November has been designated as National Diabetes Awareness Month.

Sense of urgency

“It’s very important that we raise awareness, so people understand the urgency around this disease and the risk factors,” Heverly says. “What sets this disease apart from others is that the medical professionals can set up a treatment plan, but the burden is on the individual to decide what to eat, to take their medicines, to be physically active and to manage their own care.”

What is diabetes? Here’s a simple explanation from webmd.com:

Diabetes stems from problems with the hormone insulin, which is released by the pancreas to aid the body in storing and using sugar and fat from the foods we eat.

Diabetes occurs when the body produces little or no insulin, or when the body does not respond appropriately to insulin (insulin resistance), leading to high levels of sugar in the blood.

Type 1 diabetes (formerly called “juvenile onset”) is an autoimmune condition, often beginning in childhood, in which the body attacks the pancreas with antibodies so the damaged organ doesn’t make insulin.

Type 2 diabetes, the most common form, develops when the body becomes resistant to insulin or the pancreas stops producing enough insulin. Genetics and lifestyle factors, like excess weight and lack of physical activity, are seen as contributors.

There’s also gestational diabetes that occurs during pregnancy, when the body naturally develops some insulin resistance. With proper nutrition and exercise, the condition usually resolves itself after the woman gives birth and generally doesn’t lead to Type 2 diabetes later.

Symptoms and signs

Symptoms of the disease can include:

• Increased thirst and dry mouth

• Increased hunger (especially after eating)

• Frequent urination

• Unexplained weight loss

• Fatigue

• Blurred vision

• Labored, heavy breathing

Left untreated, serious health conditions (and ultimately, death) can result:

• Vision problems, including light sensitivity, and even eventual blindness

• Kidney and nerve damage

• Problems with digestion

• Slow healing of wounds

Diabetes can make it harder to control blood pressure and cholesterol, leading to heart attack or stroke. It can affect blood flow to the legs and feet. There also appears to be links between diabetes and depression and dementia.

‘Touch of sugar’

What can be done to avoid this frightening scenario? While there currently is no cure, diabetes can be managed.

“The biggest thing is awareness,” Kowalyk says.

“I have patients who joke that ‘I have a touch of sugar,’ but it’s not a laughing matter,” he says. “The biggest issues are maintaining a healthy lifestyle, staying active and thin. No question, that’s a hard thing to do, but even small amounts of weight loss and physical activity have a big impact on blood sugar.

“We all know how difficult it is to exercise around here in the wintertime,” Heverly says.

“There’s a huge push in this country to identify pre-diabetes, so people can make those lifestyle changes,” he adds. “It’s generally recommended that you have your blood sugar tested once a year, certainly by age 30 to 40, depending on if you’re overweight or have a family history of diabetes.”

Help is available

The American Diabetes Association website has information on everything from risk factors and treatment to community resources and healthy eating.

The website’s “Food” hub contains everything from information on food choices, nutritional information, quick meals and healthy snacks, vegetarian and gluten-free diets and even holiday meal planning.

One new feature, Heverly says, is a “Create Your Plate” tool that helps users plan breakfast, lunch or dinner. A graphic of a plate is divided into sections that show the breakdown of a healthy meal: 25 percent protein, 25 percent grains and starchy foods and 50 percent non-starchy vegetables.

Area health networks, including Excela Health, Allegheny Health Network and UPMC, offer diabetes education and management programs.

Excela’s “Living With Diabetes, Looking Forward” program, for example, helps people who are newly diagnosed to learn to manage their own care and control their blood glucose levels.

This month, sessions are planned Nov. 7 at Excela Square at Norwin and Nov. 6, 13 and 20 at Latrobe Hospital.

Information is available at 877-771-1234 or excelahealth.org.

For information on the Allegheny Health Network Center for Diabetes and Endocrine Health, call 412-362-8677 or visit ahn.org.

For the UPMC Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology, call 412-586-9700 or visit upmc.com.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, smcmarlin@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shirley_trib.

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