Prevention is key to disease control

By Ivana Susic

Diabetes is currently one of the leading causes of death in the United States. The health care cost for managing the disease runs almost $200 billion a year and causes countless disabilities.

No population in the country has experienced this more clearly than the black community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1980 blacks have seen a disproportionate increase in the rate of diabetes, with a 5 percent increase. Whites saw an increase of around 2.5 percent.

Currently 14.7 percent of blacks live with the disease, compared to 9.8 percent of whites and 9.5 percent of Hispanics.

Joan Chamberlain, public liaison for the office of communications of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a subset of the National Institutes of Health, said the rising numbers are truly alarming and have raised many red flags.

“African-Americans generally have almost double the rate of white Americans,” Chamberlain said. “This needs to be significantly reduced.”

Diabetes comes in two different forms, type 1 and type 2. Formerly called juvenile diabetes, type 1 results from a failure in the immune system,which caused it to  attack and destroy the body’s own insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.Type 2 diabetes, formerly called adult-onset diabetes, occurs when the body stops making enough insulin or can no longer effectively use the insulin it produces.

According to the American Diabetes Association, several factors contribute to the onset of type 2 diabetes. After food is consumed, the body begins to break down the sugars and starches into glucose, which is a necessary fuel for the cells. Fat cells release fatty acids, which can interfere with glucose metabolism, preventing the body from manufacturing energy as efficiently.

Eating fried, fatty or overly sugary foods deposits more fat and sugar than the body can break down. Instead of burning off, the energy gets stored and converted to fat.

One factor not often considered is how a mother eats during her pregnancy. Nutrition becomes important because a mother with a poor diet can predispose her child to type 2 diabetes, said Chamberlain.

Genes do play a role in diabetes, as having a parent with it does increase risk, said Dr. Martha M. Funnell, chair for the National Diabetes Education Program.

“In African-American communities, multiple family members will have diabetes,” Funnell said. “The prevalence is so high.”

The increasing rates have led to more knowledge of the disease within the population, but the problem is exacerbated because there isn’t enough resolve to show younger generations how to stay healthy. Without a solid example, adolescents follow the same unhealthy footsteps.

She said another problem is that not many people are aware they can fight to keep the disease at bay; it is not a disease one has to live with.

“I think there’s an awareness because people know it exists, but they don’t know it’s not inevitable,” Funnell said. “You can prevent it.”

While genetics do play a role, lifestyle can determine whether an individual develops the disease. Through a healthy diet and moderate amount of exercise,  a person can lower the risk of type 2 diabetes by 58 percent, according to Funnell.

This amounts to losing 5 to 7 percent of body weight.  There is no need for a gym; walking an extra 30 minutes five times a week, for example.

“You don’t have to be 100 pounds or run marathons,” Funnell said. “The cliche ‘small steps and big rewards’ really works here.”

Dr. Mark Molitch, an endocrinologist for Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said the amount of outreach efforts seems to have raised awareness within the black population, but he still sees more younger people than in the past. The problem has also been more noticeable in women than men, Molitch said.

“Creating healthy habits at a young age can help long-term health,” he said. “Eat less, exercise more and don’t be obese.”