You may have diabetes and not know it

07/14/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

About seven million people in the United States are unaware they have a serious, incurable disease – diabetes.

Individuals with diabetes have high blood glucose, also known as blood sugar, either because their body does not produce enough insulin or because their cells do not respond properly to insulin.

Many parts of the body are affected by diabetes. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels, nerves and other internal structures. Sugar-based substances build up in the walls of small blood vessels, causing them to thicken and leak. Poor blood flow affects healing, often leading to chronic diabetic ulcers. Damage to blood vessels and nerves can lead to amputation of the legs and feet.

The immune system is affected, increasing the likelihood of infection. Diabetics are more than twice as likely to die from a stroke or heart disease. Eye complications occur, sometimes leading to glaucoma, cataracts and even blindness. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of individuals with diabetes have nerve damage. Blood pressure can be elevated, raising the risk of kidney disease. The digestive system also can be impaired.

Diabetes is a growing problem in the U.S., with more than 8.5 percent of the population affected. For people ages 65 and over, the percentage is nearly 27 percent. Both men and women are at risk. An estimated 79 million people have prediabetes, which means their blood sugar level is on the verge of reaching the diabetes stage.

Common symptoms of diabetes include frequent urination; excessive thirst; feeling very hungry even when eating normally; extreme fatigue; blurry vision; cuts and bruises that are slow to heal; unexplained weight loss; and tingling, pain or numbness in the hands or feet. However, individuals may have diabetes even though they have only mild symptoms or none at all.

There are different types of diabetes. Type 1 usually develops before age 40 and is treated by insulin injections. Gestational diabetes affects some women during pregnancy and may raise the risk of childbirth complications.

Ninety percent of diabetics have type 2, which usually develops later in life, although a growing number of children are developing type 2 diabetes. This increase may be attributed to an increase in childhood obesity, poor diet and lack of physical inactivity.

Type 2 diabetes sometimes can be controlled by lifestyle changes. Maintaining a healthy body weight can make a significant difference. A healthy diet with the appropriate balance and portions of lean proteins, nonfat dairy products, low-carbohydrate vegetables, fresh fruits and high-fiber cereals and breads is very beneficial. Physical activity also is essential.

When medications are needed, several options are available, ranging from oral medications to insulin injections. Insulin treatment can require frequent checking of blood sugar levels and carefully balancing diet with activity. Some patients have an insulin pump implanted to provide insulin continuously.

Most people with diabetes benefit greatly from learning about their disease and what they can do to help control it. Specially trained nurses and physicians can provide education and support.

When you have an annual checkup with your physician, it’s a good idea to ask whether you should be tested for diabetes. The test involves having blood drawn after you have fasted for eight hours.

Many individuals do not get checked for diabetes because they are afraid to hear the results. But delaying diagnosis and treatment can lead to irreversible damage to the body, causing more complications in the long run.

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