By the year 2050, 25-30% of American adults are projected to have diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is, “one of the biggest global health crises of the 21st century,” according to the former director general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan. This chronic illness, caused by the body’s inability to effectively metabolize glucose (sugar) is, “a slow-motion disaster,” that impacts roughly 10% of the United States population today. Over 50% of people in the United States are either prediabetic or diabetic. Historically, type 2 diabetes has been known as adult-onset diabetes, however, there are more children and young adults being diagnosed every year. Not only is the number of lives impacted by diabetes astonishing, the healthcare costs are alarming as well. The United States currently spends $350 billion dollars a year on managing the disease, and roughly one in every three Medicare dollars is used for diabetes care. Clearly, the scope of this disease is humongous, and only continues to grow.
What does type 2 diabetes look like? Symptoms of the disease tend to develop slowly, so an individual could have it for years before ever being able to tell. The most common symptoms include, but are not limited to, increased hunger or thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, blurred vision, areas of darkened skin, and more. And while these symptoms are simply indicators of the disease itself, even once treatment for the illness begins, there are countless other health risks that often occur. Diabetes increases an individuals’ risk for developing heart and blood vessel disease, which can take the form of strokes, high blood pressure, and the narrowing of blood vessels. Type 2 diabetes can also lead to serious nerve damage (neuropathy), and result in the loss of feeling in affected limbs, or issues with digestion, leading to nausea, constipation, and diarrhea. This disease can cause kidney failure or end-stage kidney disease, it can lead to serious eye damage or blindness, and it increases an individual’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Ultimately, type 2 diabetes weakens the body’s ability to perform upkeep and properly protect itself, leading to serious health risks if not properly maintained.
On top of the slew of health risks that come with a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, the monetary costs are also startling. As stated, Type 2 Diabetes costs the United States roughly $350 billion dollars each year, and that amount will continue to increase as the percentage of diabetics grows. Additionally, in the last 5 years, the economic costs of diabetes have seen a 26% increase. But what do these costs look like on an individual level? When looking at direct costs related to type 2 diabetes, the average American adult spends between $200-$300 each month. These costs come in the form of paying for prescription medications, supplies, doctors visits, and other miscellaneous products or events. Annually, however, the average person spends between $8,000 and $10,000 on medical expenditures related to diabetes. This is due to the fact that aside from direct medical costs associated with the disease, diabetes often leads to many other health complications, which also require expensive medication, doctors visits, and supplements. A diagnosis of diabetes not only takes a huge toll on an individuals’ physical health, but exacerbates the mental and emotional stress people with this condition endure by creating significant financial burdens.
Obviously, no one hopes to become a diabetic. Between the health risks and the financial costs, type 2 diabetes sounds like a nightmare. So, how do people get it in the first place? The reason this disease develops on a cellular level is because the body becomes resistant to insulin, or the pancreas isn’t able to generate enough insulin to manage the glucose levels in the blood. Just like type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes is genetic. However, it’s a result of both genetic and environmental factors. If someone in your family has suffered from diabetes, you are much more likely to develop it yourself. But inheriting the genes alone is typically not enough to develop the illness. Being overweight is the leading cause of type 2 diabetes.
Inactivity and negligence towards general health and weight lead to diabetes because physical activity helps manage blood sugar levels. Exercising uses up glucose and makes peoples’ cells more receptive to insulin. If a person’s blood sugar level is constantly higher than normal (commonly known as prediabetes), and this is not addressed through either dietary changes or increased levels of activity, then the condition will progress to type 2 diabetes.
To address the question you still might be wondering: no, there’s not a cure. However, even though there’s not a pill you can take to make your diabetes go away, there’s still ways to manage and combat the disease so that it’s not all-consuming, or, worst-case scenario, life-ending. Taking the medications prescribed by your doctor, like Metformin, Sulfonylureas, and Insulin, can help manage the disease, but ultimately healthy lifestyle choices are essential in preventing and regulating diabetes.
Essentially, this disease is only preventable on the individual level. There are many warning signs on the path to developing diabetes, but the only surefire way to avoid it is to maintain a healthy weight. Individuals with prediabetes or relatives with the disease can stop the onset of the illness by prioritizing weight loss and clean eating. Additionally, healthy lifestyle choices can prevent further health complications in individuals who have already developed diabetes. Diabetes is manageable in people who know how to prioritize their health. People who focus on foods lower in fat and calories, like fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, can better manage and prevent the build up of excess glucose in the blood. Additionally, getting active and maintaining a healthy weight are essential in combating diabetes. A good goal to aim for is at least 30-60 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week.
Medical professionals are working tirelessly to research potential ways to cure diabetes. A 2019 article published by Boston Magazine discusses the beliefs of medical director, Sarah Hallberg, who has worked to study possible treatments. Hallberg’s theory claims that the way the disease has been cured historically, by progressively giving patients more medicine as the disease worsens, only perpetrates it: “The standard of care is that this is a chronic and progressive disease,” she said. “And I will tell you that I 100 percent reject that idea. It’s chronic and progressive only if you treat it with what has typically been the standard of care. But when you restrict the cause—you restrict the carbohydrates—the physiology is on the patient’s side, actually.” Hallberg believes that by eliminating carbohydrates from a diabetic’s diet, they can stabilize their blood sugar. Chief Medical Director at Joslin Diabetes Center, Robert Gabbay, somewhat supports this theory. He believes that since being overweight is the biggest risk factor for diabetes, getting the weight off is ultimately what will improve a patient’s health the most. According to Gabbay, this could be through a low carb diet, but it doesn’t have to be. While medical experts have not yet reached a clear consensus on how to entirely eliminate the illness, we know one thing for certain: weight loss is key in preventing and managing type 2 diabetes.
Over the years, many doctors and medical professionals have become accustomed to simply prescribing medication for type 2 diabetics, which only serves as a bandaid for the issue. Many patients are now asking for doctors to first prescribe weight loss, carb cutting, and other lifestyle changes before simply surrendering patients to the path of slowly increasing prescriptions for the remainder of their lives. While diabetes is classified as a lifelong chronic illness, we should look at how to best manage and prevent it, rather than giving up on patients once it’s diagnosed. Diabetes is not a death sentence, it’s a wake up call to improve your health, and ultimately, your quality of life.