What can be done about the scary upsurge of diabetes among African Americans? They are nearly twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as non-Hispanic white Americans, and more likely to suffer from diabetes complications.

The name of the game is education and awareness, and that is why it's encouraging that Novo Nordisk has enlisted the help of two celebrities as paid “ambassadors” who are well-qualified to tackle this challenge: Kendall Simmons, who played NFL football while managing his own T1D; and Joseph (“Rev Run”) Simmons, a rapper with the legendary RunDMC and reality TV star whose father has T2D.

Both are African American (there's no relation despite their shared surname), and while they insist their messages are beneficial to all races, they’re aware that their work is especially important to the black community. Both participated in a Sept. 13 panel discussion on diabetes and African Americans organized by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, where they joined clinicians and researchers who are trying address glaring health disparities.

 

Talking to Rev Run on 'Ask, Screen, Know' Initiative

At the Black Caucus event, Rev Run talked about a Novo initiative called AskScreenKnow, which has been around since 2012; the hip-hop legend has joined along with his wife Justine Simmons to spread the word about T2D risk factors, encourage screening and offer tips on diet and exercise. One of their goals is "to let people know that if you’re African American, you have double the risk. If you’re 45 and older, you’re even more at risk. If you’re not working out, not taking care of yourself, and eating the wrong foods, overweight, or have a family history you can run into problems.”

Even though Rev Run doesn’t have diabetes himself, he told DiabetesMine in a phone interview that the disease is very personal to him. “My dad had diabetes – and he was a big inspiration to me… and still is today.” But it wasn’t until his manager’s father was diagnosed with T2D in 2011 that he started thinking that the disease could strike him, too. “That nudged me into helping others.”

After connecting with Novo, Rev Run says “health became my spiritual mission.” He tweets about T2D a few times a month (@RevRunWisdom), and discusses it on local and network TV news shows -- even at the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame, and he's also sprinkled motivational messages about it into church sermons. His credo: “Your health is your wealth.”

Rev Run and his wife Justine -- who also has a family history of diabetes -- also try to set personal examples by taking care of themselves. He tries to walk briskly every day, and while he wouldn’t suggest a specific diet, he emphasized the importance of healthy, non-junk foods: “We stopped frying and do a lot of baking. Went from potato chips to fruit…” Some of their favorite recipes can be found on the Cooking Channel. They also aren't strangers to doing interviews within the diabetes community, such as this Diabetes Daily Grind podcast from 2016, where Rev Run and Justine shared their story and advocacy.

All of that, from his family's own personal D-connections to his mindfulness on being healthy in light of the T2 epidemic worldwide, factored into Rev Run's participation in the recent Congressional Black Caucus panel. The celebrity said by phone that he was both “overwhelmed and inspired” when experts at the panel discussion elaborated on the crisis of diabetes in the African American community, pushing him to "look in the mirror" and "work harder.”

Another panelist was Matthew O’Brien of Northwestern University, whose research indicates that current federal screening criteria used by healthcare providers for pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes might miss more than half of the cases. The diagnostic gap is particularly wide among African, Asian and Hispanic Americans. 

In other words, relying on to healthcare providers to test for diabetes isn’t the answer; people need to take it upon themselves to get screened. That’s why Rev Run’s work is critically important.

 

Kendall Simmons: Managing T1D in the NFL Trenches

Beyond type 2, it's clearly just as important to educate the African American community about T1D. That's where retired NFL player Kendall Simmons comes into the picture. He's been a Novo Patient Ambassador since 2011, and prior to that was an NFL offensive lineman from 2002 to 2010, mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While his mission is to help people “of all backgrounds,” he told the 'Mine that he was honored to discuss the impact of diabetes on the African American community and share his own story at the Black Caucus panel. He's also done that at previous events, including one in 2017 at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, along with other venues.

His story about dealing with T1D while playing in the NFL is pretty impressive -- and the next time I’m tempted to complain about my own T1D, I’m going to remember what Simmons went through. He was diagnosed during his second training camp with the Steelers in August 2003. One challenge was that, unlike most people, he had to maintain a lot of weight to succeed (he weighed 315 pounds at the time). Another was that he had to hurl his body against some of the best athletes on the planet and somehow keep his metabolism on an even keel.

“I couldn’t just tap my helmet and come out. I had to mentally deal with [diabetes] until I got to the sideline,” he told Players Trust magazine. “I was averaging 8-10 insulin shots a game. And I had to check my blood sugar at least 8-10 times a game as well. I dealt with issues with my adrenaline, which really ran my blood sugar through the roof, which then made me have to take so many shots. It was all over the place.”

Media coverage has also chronicled his changing D-management tools over the years, with some coverage noting that he now wears a CGM (continuous glucose monitor) to track BG readings and keep his A1C around 6.3%. On average, he also bicycles 75 miles a week and does 30-45 minutes of cardio workouts on a treadmill and jumps rope several times a week.

Wow! I’ll never complain again. This guy managed to win two Super Bowl rings. Now, he shares  his singular saga, mostly to young people, at dozens of community events each year, including health fairs, diabetes camps and bike-a-thons. He said, “I’m grateful that I can help educate people about the importance of good diabetes management practices and hopefully inspire them to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

 

Celebrities as Paid Disease Spokespersons

No doubt, there is always a question in our Diabetes Community about whether celebrities should be hired by companies to be a part of these initiatives or campaigns, or participate in events like the recent Congressional Black Caucus panel. That's an issue we've covered multiple times over the years, and opinions vary.

I can imagine the complaints thrumming through the minds of some skeptics in our community as they learn about Rev Run and Kendall Simmons latest efforts: “These guys get paid by a major insulin manufacturer, and all their educational work doesn’t absolve Novo Nordisk of its obligation to lower insulin prices and increase access.”

That’s true. But education and inspiration are important weapons in the ongoing battle against diabetes and its complications. I think Novo made a smart choice when it recruited Rev Run and Kendall Simmons to help. There is clearly a need to address diabetes worldwide, especially in underserved communities and for those in minority populations. If the voices of prominent African-American voices like these two celebs can reach more people and raise awareness about diabetes in general, then it's tough to see that as a negative.