Diabetes in a Nutshell

Your doctor has told you that you have diabetes or that you're on the verge of getting it. Why should you consider yourself lucky? Because this is one major disease you can control.

Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to your health, and especially when it comes to diabetes. That you have a diagnosis at all is a positive step. About 16 million Americans are afflicted with the disease, but nearly one-third are gradually getting sicker because they're unaware they have it. You are also fortunate to be living in an age when diabetes—which once killed its victims by wasting them away—can be controlled, if not cured.

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The disease's full name is "diabetes mellitus," a Greek/Latin hybrid. Diabetes is Greek for siphon, and doctors have known for 2000 years that people with the disease seem to urinate incessantly. Mellitus is Latin for honey. The ancients observed that ants—famous for loving sugar—were attracted to the urine of diabetics. For centuries, to diagnose the disease, a doctor would taste the patient's urine for sweetness (and you think your job's rough?).

Diabetes results from the body's inability to produce enough insulin or to use it effectively. Insulin is an hormone released by the pancreas, an organ behind your stomach. The hormone's main job is to keep your blood sugar (or glucose) in check. Your glucose levels change throughout the day, depending on what and when you've eaten and whether you've exercised.

Type 1 or Type 2?

There are two main varieties of diabetes. Type 1, also known as insulin-dependent diabetes, is when you produce little or no insulin. It commonly develops early in life. People with this form of the disease require daily injections of insulin.

Type 2 (or non-insulin-dependent) diabetes is much more common; 90 to 95 percent of people with diabetes have this form. It's also the type that often goes undiagnosed until it's too late.

Download DietPower free trialIn Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas may produce insulin, but the body becomes resistant to it. This type usually strikes in adulthood, but lately doctors have been diagnosing it more and more in younger people. Reason: Type 2 is hastened by obesity, which has become epidemic in recent decades. Thanks to its ever-expanding waistlines, the United States is home to 13 percent of the world's diabetics despite having only 4.6 percent of the world's people.

Diet and Exercise Help Immensely

Obesity and its handmaiden, an inactive lifestyle, are major risk factors for developing Type 2 diabetes. According to some estimates, at least 80 percent of people with this type are obese. Other risk factors include having a parent or sibling with the disease; being African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander; having higher than normal (but not necessarily diabetic) glucose levels; and having high blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

You can't choose your family or ethnic background, but you can change your lifestyle to tame Type 2 diabetes—or even prevent it altogether. The changes needn't be drastic. A recent government study showed that borderline diabetics who lost just 7 percent of their body weight; switched to a low-calorie, low-fat diet; and exercised only moderately (a brisk walk) for 2.5 hours a week cut their chances of getting the disease by a whopping 58 percent. Many Type 2 (but not Type 1) diabetics can keep the disease under control without drugs.

A Killer's Henchmen

Although diabetes is a much more manageable disease than it was less than a century ago, it's still a serious one. The government lists it as the nation's seventh leading cause of death.

What sets diabetes apart from other diseases, however, is its wicked versatility. It is the fount of many, often deadly, complications: heart disease and stroke, kidney failure, blindness, infections, and nerve damage that can lead to amputations. Diabetics may die of one official, seemingly unrelated cause, but the underlying diabetes usually has its fingerprints all over it.

Download DietPower free trialThis is why having a diagnosis is important. Many Type 2 diabetics come down with something life-threatening before realizing that they are diabetic at all—and that perhaps they could have prevented the complications.

Once you have it, diabetes is a daily companion that cannot be ignored. You need to pay close attention to what you eat, monitor your glucose levels, take your medicine if you're on a prescription, and keep an eye out for trouble signs. But if you're careful, you can lead a normal life.

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Below are more pages that will help you understand and combat diabetes. All are carefully checked for scientific accuracy.

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