Diabetes is one of the most common health conditions around the world and in the United States. About 8.5 percent of adults worldwide and 9.3 percent of all Americans live with the condition. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form you may have heard of, but you might be surprised by what you still don’t know. Ongoing research in recent years has improved diagnosis, treatment, and knowledge about type 2 diabetes, allowing for better prevention and management. Here are six things everyone should know about type 2 diabetes.
1. It’s a chronic condition and currently has no cure
Simply put, diabetes is a condition that occurs when your body has a problem managing its blood sugar levels. It is due to the body’s inability to either make or use insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. Either your body doesn’t produce enough or any insulin, or the cells of the body are resistant and unable to use the insulin it creates effectively. If your body can’t use insulin to metabolize glucose, a simple sugar, it will build up in your blood, leading to high blood sugar levels. As a result of cellular resistance, the various cells in your body won’t get the energy they need to function properly, causing further problems. Diabetes is a chronic condition, which means it lasts a long time. Currently, there is no cure, so it takes careful management and sometimes medication to keep blood sugar levels within their target range.
2. It’s on the rise, especially in young adults
The number of people with diabetes around the world has risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014, and type 2 diabetes makes up most of these cases, according to the World Health Organization. Even more concerning is that type 2 diabetes was once only seen in adults but is now more and more commonly diagnosed in young adults as well. This is likely because type 2 diabetes is linked to a higher body mass index (BMI) and obesity, an issue that’s becoming more common among younger people today.
3. It can go unnoticed for years
Many cases of type 2 diabetes are undiagnosed because of a lack of symptoms or because people don’t recognize them as due to diabetes. Causes of symptoms such as fatigue, increased hunger, and increased thirst are sometimes hard to pin down, and often develop over a long period of time, if at all. For this reason, it’s especially important to get tested. Anyone 45 or older should get tested for diabetes, especially if you’re overweight. If you’re overweight and under 45, you may still want to consider being tested, since being overweight is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases even has a free diabetes risk test that will help you see if you’re at risk for type 2 diabetes.
4. It can lead to serious complications if unchecked
If it’s left undiagnosed and untreated for too long, type 2 diabetes can lead to life-threatening complications. The same is true for people who neglect to manage their diabetes properly. Cardiovascular disease, diabetic eye disease, kidney disease, nerve damage, hearing damage, and increased risk for stroke and Alzheimer’s disease are among the major complications that people with type 2 diabetes face. Maintaining a close watch on blood sugar levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure are extremely important in lowering these risks. Early detection and treatment, a healthy lifestyle, and regular checkups are key.
5. It poses a higher risk to some groups of people
It’s not completely understood why diabetes occurs in certain people and not others, but research shows that some groups face a higher risk. People who have the following characteristics are more likely to have type 2 diabetes than those who don’t:
- overweight or obese
- carry most of their fat in their midsection (as opposed to their thighs or buttocks)
- inactive, exercising less than three times a week
- family history of diabetes, with a parent or sibling who has the condition
- history of gestational diabetes
- history of prediabetes
- history of insulin resistance, such as those with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and/or Asian American background
- aged 45 or older
- those with high triglyceride levels, low HDL cholesterol levels, and those with high blood pressure
6. It can be managed and prevented with a healthy lifestyle
One of the most important things you can do to manage type 2 diabetes and live a full life is to eat well and exercise regularly. Because experts know definitively that certain factors increase the risk, they also know that there’s a good chance you can prevent it or at least delay the onset. Some basic things you can do to help prevent and/or manage type 2 diabetes include:
1. Maintain a healthy weight.
2. Do 30 minutes of regular, moderately intense physical activity daily, or vigorous exercise 3 days a week.
3. Limit sugared drinks and saturated fats in your diet. Add more fruits and veggies, and remove processed foods.
4. Avoid tobacco use, which increases the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
5. Regularly check your blood sugar if you’ve been diagnosed, and maintain proper foot, kidney, blood vessel, and eye care to prevent complications.
If you’re struggling with changing up your eating habits, here’s a tip from Vadym Graifer, author of “The Time Machine Diet,” a book that details Graifer’s personal journey with type 2 diabetes and how he lost 75 pounds by simply changing his lifestyle: “Watch out for added sugar. It's creeping in our diet from everywhere. A majority of processed foods contain it; if it's in the box, it's likely to contain sugar. No matter how busy your life is, find the way to prepare and eat real food instead of artificial concoctions overloaded with flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and, as the popular saying goes, anything your grandma wouldn't recognize as food.”
Lastly, experts say it’s vital to remember that while your doctor may prescribe medication to help you manage diabetes, you shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that a pill can fix everything.
“People think that because their doctor gave them a medication to control their blood sugar that they no longer have diabetes. This is false,” says integrative podiatrist Dr. Suzanne Fuchs, DPM. “These patients often feel as though they can take the medication and not watch what they eat or exercise.”
Matt Longjohn, MD, MPH, national health officer at YMCA of the USA, adds: “Perhaps the least known thing about type 2 diabetes is that it can often be prevented with just a 5 percent loss of body weight by people who are shown to be at high risk. Many studies have shown this effect in people with prediabetes, and new cases of diabetes have routinely been reduced in this group by 58 percent without a drug or anything other than lifestyle changes.”
Foram Mehta is a San Francisco-based journalist by way of New York City and Texas. She has a bachelor’s of journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has had her work published in Marie Claire, on India.com, and Medical News Today, among other publications. As a passionate vegan, environmentalist, and animal rights advocate, Foram hopes to continue using the power of the written word to promote health education and help everyday people live better, fuller lives on a healthier planet.