Good stories are built on mystery, but when mysteries crop up in real life, it’s not always fun – even when you solve them. Diabetes is one of those illnesses with symptoms that sound very ordinary but which may signal danger ahead. Are you putting on weight because you’ve been eating more? If you’re not counting calories, it can be hard to tell. Maybe you’re feeling tired because you’re overworked. Then again, perhaps not.
Given how sneaky the disease can be, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a third of all people with diabetes don’t know they have it, or that there are some simple things you can do to help prevent it. Keep in mind, though, that type 2 diabetes is not itself a simple illness. While your grandparents might have complained about having “the sugar,” sugar isn’t the problem by itself. The trouble starts when your body has difficulty processing sugar.
How does diabetes work?
Your body uses insulin to convert sugar from food into energy. People with diabetes don’t have enough, or sometimes any, insulin to get this job done. And sugar is everywhere in foods. It’s in all those healthy things we’re supposed to eat a lot of, like fruits and veggies (the starchy ones, anyway), beans and other legumes and yoghurt. And of course it’s in the stuff we really want, like sweets and cereal.
Here’s the key point: when sugar doesn’t give you energy, it hangs around in your bloodstream and causes damage. That usually makes diabetes a lifelong illness – if it develops.
What’s the good news?
Here are two bits of good news: type 2 diabetes is preventable – and early detection helps make eventual treatment easier. In fact, Diabetes Australia estimates that up to 60 percent of type 2 diabetes cases can be avoided. How do you accomplish that? Maintaining a healthy blood pressure and good cholesterol levels can certainly help. Other important measures you can take include watching your weight, staying active and eating right. If you smoke, stop, and if you don’t, don’t start.
Of course, there are some risk factors that we can’t exactly control. Age is a big factor – if you’re a boomer, your risk is elevated, and as with many other conditions, you have a higher chance of getting diabetes if it runs in your family. Genetics affects your susceptibility in other ways too. If you’re over 35 and can claim a Torres Strait or Pacific Islander background, if you’re Aboriginal or Chinese or if your family has roots on the Indian subcontinent, your risk goes up. People who are over 45 and have some of the health risks listed above, such as high blood pressure or too much weight, are also at risk.
What are the symptoms?
One of the difficulties with this disease is that you may have it and yet experience none of the symptoms. That’s why it’s always good to get regular checkups. But even when you have symptoms, they can be hard to recognize, and that’s because it’s all too easy to write them off as part of the aging process. These are things like putting on pounds, feeling tired, experiencing blurry vision or getting cramps in your legs. Other symptoms may be more unusual, like mood swings, skin that itches or heals more slowly or gets infected more, and urinating more often. Feeling hungry all the time, or feeling unusually thirsty, dizzy or headachy are some other signs to look out for.
I have diabetes. What can I do to protect myself?
If you have diabetes, your doctor will tell you how your particular case needs to be treated. But just as the disease may have been hidden from you, it’s not exactly visible to anyone else. To protect themselves in the event of an emergency, many diabetics wear medical alert bracelets. That way, if more severe symptoms strike – such as an extremely low blood-sugar level, which can knock you unconscious – people will know what has happened, who to call and what to do.
Diabetes Australia calls diabetes “the world’s fastest growing chronic disease.” It affects 366 million people worldwide right now, and it will affect millions more in the near future. Maybe this is one time when you really don’t want to be trendy. The good news is that while diabetes may not be curable at the present time, it is preventable. And conveniently, prevention begins with all the things we all should be doing in the first place: eating right, getting plenty of exercise and saying goodbye to our unhealthy habits.
Alicia Ranch-Traille is a mother of two and health junkie. She believes in helping people of all ages make healthy, smart choices. She’s been published at Business2Community and GalTime. Want more Alicia? @ her on Twitter!