November is National Diabetes Awareness Month. Before you assume this is another made-up holiday created just to post an image on social media, think again.There are some major reasons why National Diabetes Awareness Month is important – 114 million reasons, to be exact.That’s because 114 million represents the number of Americans living with diabetes or prediabetes.
About 84 million Americans have prediabetes. Although prediabetes is not an actual disease, it is a major wake-up call to make life changes to prevent someone from developing full-blown diabetes, says Dr. Dean Schillinger, professor of medicine in residence at the University of California San Francisco and chief of the UCSF Division of General Internal Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital.
Without any intervention, 15 to 30 percent of people with prediabetes will develop Type 2 diabetes over the following five years, says Heather Hodge, director of the Chronic Disease Prevention Program at YMCA of the USA.
As the obesity epidemic grows in the U.S., diabetes also has become an epidemic. With all the health complications involved with diabetes – not to mention the health care costs for people living with the disease – November becomes a sobering reminder of the value of diabetes awareness.
“We need more than one day or one week to get the message out,” says registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator Byron Richard, a clinical nutrition manager at University of California San Diego Health.
Much of the news about diabetes is frustrating both for people who have it and those who treat it. After all, poor eating continues, Americans keep gaining weight and there are many health complications associated with diabetes, including heart disease and vision loss. The average medical expenditures for people with diabetes are about $13,700 a year – with $7,900 relating to diabetes alone, according to the American Diabetes Association.
“Sometimes individuals only begin to understand the effect a disease has on their life until it hits them in the wallet, and this statistic can be a wake-up call to many,” Hodge says.
However, there is some hope. A federal study of the Diabetes Prevention Program – geared toward preventing diabetes in people with prediabetes – found that when participants lost just 5 percent to 7 percent of their body weight, they decreased their risk of diabetes by 58 percent to 71 percent.
There’s also less shaming nowadays about having diabetes – specifically Type 2, which is the kind of diabetes often linked to lifestyle choices. Much of the diabetes epidemic is linked to the social environment in the U.S., Schillinger says.
There’s also more technology nowadays to help users and health care providers see diabetes data and use it to better understand the disease, says Rick Altinger, CEO of Glooko in Mountain View, California.
And there’s finally a growing focus on prevention. “Many health insurance companies and employers are investing in educational and digital programs to help people better understand their condition and get it in better control,” Altinger says.
Still, “Innovation needs to move faster, programs need to be tested, improved and rolled out faster to tackle the growth rate of the disease and make a difference,” Altinger says.
Use this month to make the following positive changes in your life if you believe you have prediabetes or if you have diabetes.
If You Think You Have Prediabetes
See a health care provider. Prediabetes and diabetes don’t always have symptoms. However, you’re at a higher risk for diabetes if you have a family history of diabetes or if you’re overweight, with a body mass index greater than 25. You can also evaluate your risk with the American Diabetes Association risk calculator found here.
Join a diabetes prevention program. The YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program was certified in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a proven low-cost community program shown to prevent diabetes, Hodge says. The DPP is specifically for adults age 18 and older who have been diagnosed with prediabetes. “The YMCA’s DPP can produce cost savings of approximately $2,650 over 15 months and improved health outcomes,” Hodge says. Diabetes Prevention Program meetings are held at 1,100 sites in 47 states; some sites have classes in different languages.
Find ways to exercise more. Physical activity is important for everyone. If you’re sedentary and you have prediabetes, it’s the perfect time to get moving so you can help avoid diabetes, Schillinger says. Try out your local pool or walk for 10 minutes after each meal, for a total of 30 minutes a day. It’s OK to break your physical activity into smaller chunks throughout the day.
If You Have Diabetes
Talk about your typical day with a health professional knowledgeable in diabetes. With your doctor, certified diabetes educator, registered dietitian or a nurse, go through a typical day of living with diabetes. The health professional can help you identify changes to your routine to improve your diabetes care, Schillinger says. He also recommends trading healthy ideas with others who have diabetes. “Some of the greatest learning for diabetes is with peers. If it’s peer advice, you’re more likely to listen,” Schillinger says.
If you don’t already do so, check your blood sugar at least once a day, at different times of day. This can include first thing in the morning, before meals, one to two hours after meals and before bedtime. “If you do one of these daily, you can get a better picture of your blood sugar control. Record these numbers for your doctor,” Richard recommends.
Start with small changes in what you eat. This could mean switching from soda to water or adding more lean protein to your dinner. “I can’t say enough about improving diet,” Richard says. “A pill will not protect you without good eating and exercise.”
Track everything. This is valuable for both prediabetes and diabetes, says Altinger, whose company Glooko was created to help users track their diabetes and get insights. Note your blood sugar readings, food, exercise, medications and even stress. Tracking this information can give you insights into blood sugar highs and lows.