Diabetes is a scary word, and a growing public health problem. As many as 24 million Americans, an alarming number of them children, suffer from some form of diabetes—more than 186,000 children, according to the Center For Disease Control. The American Diabetes Association has designated November as Diabetes Awareness month, in an attempt to shine a light on this seemingly intractable scourge. It’s a good time to take a look at the facts behind the alarm, and know what you can do to help.
To begin with, it’s important to understand the distinction between the different varieties of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is rarer, but is also the variety more typically associated with children, as it manifests itself in otherwise-healthy children and adolescents. It is also the form of the disease which is more easily treated.
In Type 1 diabetes, the body fails to produce insulin, a hormone required for the metabolism of sugars into energy. Symptoms include frequent urination, drowsiness, and sudden weight loss. And while it is life-threatening if untreated, properly-diagnosed patients can maintain a normal life indefinitely with regular checking of blood-sugar levels and the administration of insulin.
Type 2 diabetes, in which the body does produce insulin but in insufficient amounts, or, alternately, is unusually resistant to insulin, is more difficult to diagnose and treat. Type 2 is far and way the more common form of the disorder, but until recently it was primarily associated with adults, particularly older adults. But its incidence has been disturbingly on the rise in children and adolescents.
Many experts point to increased levels of childhood obesity and to a lack of childhood physical activity in an age of video games as probable causes for this troubling uptick. Unfortunately, Type 2 diabetes can often go undiagnosed for a considerable time, since the symptoms develop more slowly and are less dramatic than type 1. But if left untreated, it can have a dramatic effect on life expectancy. Treatment involves careful, disciplined meal-planning, weight loss and exercise, along with medication if these treatments prove ineffective.
Expectant mothers can be at risk, too. The physical changes of pregnancy can lead to what is known as gestational diabetes, a condition which can lead to health risks for both mother and infant. Although gestational diabetes generally does not last beyond the pregnancy, it can recur. And it can result in heightened insulin levels in the child, which can in turn increase their risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes is a growing problem, and many blame the contemporary American diet for its epidemic status. But diabetes is treatable, and in many cases, preventable. This November, be sure to arm yourself with the facts. For more information, see the American Diabetes Association at www.diabetes.org, or call 1-800-DIABETES.