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Chris Stitch enjoys an evening walk with his family, from left, wife Sherrey, Kyle, Katelyn, Jacob, Sara and pet Cody. David Samson / The Forum

At risk and didn't realize it: Diabetes life-changing diagnosis for Fargo man and his family

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Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

FARGO - Chris Stich had just shed 20 pounds and was beginning to regain a little of the athletic form he once exhibited in college on the rugby field.

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Then, after his annual physical exam, Stich's doctor gave him a diagnosis that changed his life: You have diabetes.

"I was certainly devastated to find out," he says. He's well aware of the health risks and complications diabetics can face over time, including heart disease, kidney disease, stroke and vision problems.

He's not alone. Type 2 diabetes, once called adult-onset diabetes, is a leading public health threat, nationally as well as in North Dakota and Minnesota.

In North Dakota, diabetes is the leading cause of death and contributes to 7 percent of deaths. More than one of every 13 North Dakotans has diabetes - a prevalence rate that more than doubled in the past dozen years, state figures show.

In Minnesota, one of every three adults and one of every six youths have diabetes or pre-diabetes - blood sugar levels that are above normal but not yet to the level of diabetes.

"It's definitely growing, and it's at the top of the list for challenges," says Tera Miller, diabetes program director for the North Dakota Department of Health.

Diabetes has a way of sneaking up on people. It's not uncommon to go undetected for several years, says Stephanie Chimeziri, associate director of the American Diabetes Association in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.

Stich didn't see it coming when he got the diagnosis a little more than a year ago.

He was almost 40 years old at the time of his diagnosis, a married father of four young children. As with many working parents, he was busy juggling his family and work obligations.

Now, however, looking back, he can see how his risks piled up with the extra pounds.

Over time, he became less physically active and grew careless with his diet. His office job as an electrical engineer was sedentary.

"I wasn't taking time for myself," Stich says. "It was my fault for not prioritizing me."

Not anymore. He's exercising more and watching his diet, especially carbohydrates, which break down into sugars, and sweets. He's dropped 70 pounds.

"Right now, I'm kind of on my own diet," Stich says. But he and his family go on regular walks as a form of communal exercise.

When a person has diabetes, the whole family often is affected, Chimeziri says. A supportive family and workplace, she says, can make a big difference in helping stick to diet and exercise regimens.

"My family's been awesome about helping me out," Stich says. "Work's been supportive, too."

Many people are at risk for diabetes and don't realize it, Chimeziri says. A third of Americans with the disease aren't yet diagnosed.

Tuesday is American Diabetes Alert Day, when people are encouraged to take a simple test to assess their risk.

Those 45 and over are at higher risk. So are certain racial or ethnic groups, such as American Indians, African Americans and Hispanics.

And the risk keeps rising. If current trends continue, the Centers for Disease Control have projected that one of every three children born in 2000 or after will develop diabetes.

Early diagnosis can help people take corrective steps and treat the disease, Chimeziri says.

"Maybe get tested," she said, "and find out."

Are you at risk?

American Diabetes Alert Day is Tuesday. People are asked to pause and take stock to see whether they are at risk for diabetes.

Most adults in North Dakota have one or more of these six risk factors, according to a state health survey:

• High blood pressure.

• High cholesterol.

• Overweight or obese.

• Lack regular physical activity.

• Eat fewer than five fruits and vegetables per day.

• Smoking.

You can take a test to find out if you're at risk for diabetes. The American Diabetes offers this online assessment tool: www.diabetes.org/risktest.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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