The facts and statistics surrounding diabetes are alarming, but a diagnosis doesn’t have to be all doom-and-gloom.

In many cases, simple lifestyle changes like eating healthier and getting more exercise can lower the risk of developing diabetes, or can help control it if it’s already set in.

Cindy Bailey, a certified diabetes educator at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s in Detroit Lakes, said there are “many, many options” available today to help people manage their diabetes — more than there were when she first started her job about 10 years ago.

With the right mix of dietary changes, physical activity and, in some cases, medication, patients with the most common type of diabetes, type 2, can effectively control their blood sugar levels. Keeping those levels down is crucial to preventing serious health problems associated with diabetes, like blindness, kidney disease and nerve damage.

Diabetes is a common illness, and the number of people who have it is on the rise. Right now in the world, about 463 million adults are living with diabetes, most of them with type 2, and that number is projected to reach 700 million by 2045.

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In America, one in 10 people have diabetes (or about 30 million people), and another 84 million adults are at high risk of developing type 2. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, diabetes is one of the nation's leading causes of disability and death.

Doctors encourage people to learn about the risk factors and make healthy lifestyle changes. Little day-to-day choices, like opting to take the stairs instead of the elevator, can add up to make a big difference.

“The more we move, the better we are,” Bailey said. “Everything counts. Park out in the grocery store parking lot a little farther to get a few more steps in. If you’re in your house, set a time and go walk for a couple minutes, so you’re not sitting still for hours and hours.”

Food is another major factor in diabetes management. Eating the wrong kinds of foods, or too much of certain foods, can be problematic. Bailey advises her patients to, “keep your food as simple as you can. Eat more real foods (versus processed) — apples, eggs, etc. The more real food, the better.”

Also, “Your body needs all food groups, even carbs and fats. We need a balance," she added. "A lot of times I’ll suggest to people to eat the colors of the rainbow every day: fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and then add meats or eggs or fish and healthy carbs. Unhealthy carbs are the more processed kinds of things, so cut down on those. Have fun and enjoy those things, but be careful how much and how often.”

Bailey creates diabetes management plans that are unique to each of her patients. She takes into account their lifestyles and lab test results, and works with a dietitian and the patients’ primary health care providers to be as effective and supportive as possible.

Bailey works with patients that range from newly diagnosed young adults to long-time patients living in nursing homes. They come from all walks of life, but do tend to share some common characteristics, Bailey said: higher-than-average body weights, low physical activity levels and food choices being a few of the most significant.

“As weight goes up, the risk of developing diabetes goes up,” she said, adding that age and family history also factor in. “More processed foods tend to influence diabetes more, too … But weight is probably the biggest thing, along with activity level and food.”

People who develop type 2 diabetes often experience early symptoms like low energy, increased thirst and urination, appetite changes, weight changes and vision changes. These things tend to come on gradually, Bailey said, so they might not be noticed right away.

“When blood sugar or diabetes is managed or improved, people look back and that’s when they can see it — ‘Now I know how tired I was,’ for example,” she said. “It’s almost like you have to get a little beyond that to see it, like how hindsight is always so clear.”

If diabetes is not managed, it can lead to the issues of blindness, nerve damage and kidney disease already mentioned, as well as memory and awareness problems, heart attacks, strokes, bladder problems, pain and numbness in the feet, sexual dysfunction, oral health issues and mental health disorders.

“So it’s a head to toe, physical and emotional issue,” Bailey said. “Not everybody experiences all these things, but these are some of the different areas that can be affected.”

Anyone who suspects they may have diabetes or prediabetes should make an appointment with their doctor. To learn more about the diabetes education program at Essentia Health, visit www.essentiahealth.org/services/diabetes-endocrinology/education/.

Diabetes basics

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas is no longer able to make insulin, or when the body cannot make good use of the insulin it produces.

Insulin is a hormone that acts like a key to let glucose from food pass from the bloodstream into the cells in the body to produce energy. All carbohydrate foods are broken down into glucose in the blood; insulin helps glucose get into the cells.

Not being able to produce insulin or use it effectively leads to raised glucose levels in the blood (known as hyperglycemia). Long-term high glucose levels are associated with damage to the body and failure of various organs and tissues.

There are three main types of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational.

  • Type 1 diabetes can develop at any age, but occurs most frequently in children and adolescents. People with type 1 diabetes produce very little or no insulin, which means they need daily insulin injections to keep blood glucose levels under control.

  • Type 2 diabetes is more common in adults and accounts for around 90% of all diabetes cases. With type 2 diabetes, the body does not make good use of the insulin it produces. The cornerstone of type 2 diabetes treatment is a healthy lifestyle. However, over time most people with type 2 diabetes will require oral drugs and/or insulin.

  • Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy and is associated with complications to both mother and child. It usually disappears after pregnancy, but women affected and their children are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Info from the International Diabetes Federation (idf.org)

2019 stats at a glance

  • Approximately 463 million adults (ages 20-79) were living with diabetes; by 2045 this will rise to 700 million.

  • The proportion of people with type 2 diabetes is increasing in most countries.

  • 79% of adults with diabetes were living in low- and middle-income countries.

  • The greatest number of people with diabetes were between 40 and 59 years of age.

  • 1 in 2 people with diabetes were undiagnosed.

  • 374 million people are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Info from the International Diabetes Federation (idf.org)

Are you at risk?

Visit www.diabetes.org/countmeinada to take a quick, 60-second diabetes risk test.