Type 2 diabetes, though a serious disease, is not the death sentence it once was thanks to a better understanding of causes as well as advances in health care. Yet, diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the number of those newly diagnosed is expected to rise, according to the 2014 National Diabetes Statistics Report.
If the increase in Type 2 diabetes diagnoses continues at the present, alarming rate, the number of Americans diagnosed could jump from about 29 million today to 48 million in 2050.
So what can we do to try to avoid becoming a diabetes statistic? Experts say we need to understand what diabetes is and its effects on the body and then make the necessary lifestyle adjustments to try to prevent it.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes occurs when the body can’t make enough insulin or properly use it to maintain normal blood sugar levels. The disease can lead to a litany of complications including blindness and kidney damage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the total medical cost of the disease was $245 billion in 2014.
Type 1 diabetes is widely thought to be genetic. It can start at any age but most often begins in adolescence. In this form of the disease, the body does not produce insulin, and patients must monitor their blood sugar levels and administer multiple daily injections of the hormone.
Type 2 diabetes, also called late-onset, is the most common form of the disease, accounting for up to 95 percent of all diagnosed cases, according to Healthline, a medical information site. Type 2 diabetes is often preventable.
What are the causes?
“(Type 2 diabetes) is predominantly from excess carbohydrates and lack of exercise,” says Peter Beilenson, M.D., CEO of Evergreen Health Care. “Your metabolism slows down. You don’t put away food as well as you should, and then the pancreas is working overtime to put out insulin, and it can’t cope. That’s generally how you end up with Type 2 diabetes.”
“If you can address your dietary restrictions with decent compliance and get just a moderate amount of exercise, many times you can reverse a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis and even eliminate your dependence on medication,” Dr. Beilenson says.
In fact, with a prompt and proactive response, patients can see their prognosis improve rapidly.
Taking a different approach to treatment
Evergreen Health, which has four primary care offices in the Baltimore area, is taking a holistic approach when it comes to treating patients with Type 2 diabetes.
“(Evergreen Health’s primary care offices) take on diabetes in a way that is much different from other places,” Dr. Beilenson says. “We have behavioral health specialists and clinical social workers who work on developing health and wellness plans that are individualized for the patient.”
In addition to Evergreen’s treatment approach, they also remove many of the financial barriers — such as co-pays and co-insurance payments — for diabetes patients receiving treatment to halt or slow the disease’s progression. That means visits to specialists, such as podiatrists or endocrinologists, or certain lab tests may be free for Evergreen patients, says Dr. Beilenson.
The results have been significant: Diabetic patients at Evergreen have experienced a 21 percent decrease in hospitalizations and a 20 percent reduction in health care costs, he adds.
Tips for preventing Type 2 diabetes
Because Type 2 diabetes is largely preventable, here are six basic steps to help you lower your risk.
- Get tested for prediabetes. About 9 out of 10 people don’t know they have prediabetes. Once diagnosed, follow your doctor’s recommendations to the letter.
- Control your weight. “Excess weight is the single most important cause of Type 2 diabetes,” according to the article “Simple Steps to Preventing Diabetes” from Harvard’s School of Public Health.
- Increase physical activity. Inactivity can lead to Type 2 diabetes. Working your body improves its ability to use insulin and absorb glucose.
- Eat healthy. A diet that includes whole grains and limits sugar intake and red meat consumption can help lower your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
- Avoid nicotine. Smokers are about 50 percent more likely to develop diabetes than nonsmokers, and heavy smokers have an even higher risk.
- Moderate alcohol consumption may help. Drinking no more than one drink a day for women, two drinks a day for men, is thought to increase the efficiency of insulin.
In the end, it comes down to staying active and making the right lifestyle choices. Or, as Harvard’s School of Public Health puts it: “The key to preventing Type 2 diabetes can be boiled down to five words: ‘Stay lean and stay active.’”
—Brendan Murphy for Evergreen Health