Diabetes: Myths, risks and life-saving tips

During a recent screening at the St. Mary Magdalene Senior Center in downtown Omaha, Romanita Fields, 67, left, received a blood-pressure check from Nebraska Methodist College nursing student Abby Garreans. Fields also received diabetes testing and and counseling.

The problem with diabetes is that people don't understand it. It often shows up unannounced. The symptoms aren't too obvious. And millions of people who have it don't even know it — yet.

By the time diabetes is diagnosed, damage is being done in the body to the heart, eyes and nerves.

Happily, diabetes can be detected early with a simple blood test. It can be prevented or delayed with smart eating habits. And it can be managed on a daily basis with medications and diet. That's the good news.

But here's the alarming news: Six million Americans have diabetes and don't know it — yet, according to Shawn Murphy, executive director of the American Diabetes Association serving Nebraska, South Dakota and western Iowa.

“Diabetes just doesn't show up like a heart attack or stroke, and it can't be found on an x-ray,” she said.

Even more startling, 57 million of us are in a condition known as prediabetes, meaning we're on the brink of developing diabetes right now.

“One of every three people born after 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime,” said Murphy, “and among minorities, one of every two will (referring to the higher risk for Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans, among others).”

Myths surround diabetes, like this sugar myth: You can get diabetes from eating too much leftover Halloween candy or putting too many teaspoons of sugar in your coffee or from eating cake and cookies.

That's so far from reality, diabetes health educators and nutrition experts would love to shout out this headline: IT'S NOT ABOUT EATING SUGAR.

That said, diabetes is about the body being unable to process carbohydrates, which are nutrients found in food (cake, cookies and stuff you don't even realize contain large amounts of carbs). Inside the body, carbs turn into blood glucose, which is also called blood sugar (that's where the sugar thing comes from).

The body needs carbs for energy in cells. But when cells can't process that carb energy or blood glucose fast enough, the glucose travels around the body and does damage to blood vessels in the eye, nerves and the heart.

The key for a diabetic is to keep carb intake levels low enough for the body to process it. Plain and not so simple.

Diabetes can cause serious health complications including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and loss of toes and legs. Diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States.

Being overweight or obese is a risk factor. And because of the American obesity epidemic, more and more Americans including children are putting themselves at risk.

You're at higher risk if a parent or brother or sister has diabetes. Or if you're among a growing number of minority populations. With age comes a higher risk for developing diabetes.

Overweight children and seniors are among those at risk.

High blood pressure puts you at risk, as does having high cholesterol. And anyone who is physically inactive (exercising fewer than three times a week) is also at risk.

“Our biggest challenge is that people deny they have the disease,” Murphy said. “They think they feel OK even though life-threatening complications can lead to heart disease, blindness, amputations and dental disease. They forget what it feels like to feel good.”

A simple blood test using just a drop of blood taken from a finger can indicate whether your blood glucose level is too high. Anyone 45 years old or older should be regularly tested. Anyone under that age who is overweight and has one or more other risk factors should get checked too.

Pregnant women are tested for a type of diabetes that can develop during pregnancy.

There are two major types of diabetes, but up to 95 percent of people are diagnosed with type 2.

Your doctor should be regularly testing you, especially if you have risk factors. Community screenings are often free and available.

“People don't take diabetes as seriously as other chronic diseases,” said Murphy of the American Diabetes Association, “because diabetes is like a silent killer. People don't realize that over time they are ill, until one day they can't feel their fingers or feet. That process has happened over time.”

“Once the damage has happened,” Murphy said, “it can't be reversed.”

She urges everyone to take the symptoms seriously and seek guidance from a doctor.

“The good news,” said Murphy, “is that you can live a normal healthy life if you manage the disease by making smart lifestyle choices that include exercise, healthy eating, and following your doctor's plan.”

The federal Diabetes Prevention Program found that you can delay and possibly prevent the disease by losing a small amount of weight (just 5 to 7 percent of your total body weight) with physical activity and healthier eating.

Healthy eating is just a grocery shopping trip away with the right shopping list and some help knowing what to look for on food labels.

The American Diabetes Association invites those with diabetes, especially those newly diagnosed, and their family members and caregivers to attend Ask the Expert, a free patient education forum.

Questions are answered by doctors, nutrition experts, cardiologists and dentists. Contact the ADA for information at 888-342-2383.

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