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Diabetes occurs when your blood sugar is too high. It disrupts how your body processes food into energy and risks your overall health.
Millions of adults across America have diabetes, increasing their chances of developing health problems such as kidney disease, eye issues, heart disease and nerve damage.
A Certified Diabetes Educator from Swedish answers frequently asked questions about diabetes and offers an overview of available resources.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention present a sobering reality check about diabetes in the United States:
- 28.5 million adults have diabetes
- 8.5 million adults have undiagnosed diabetes
- 96 million adults – or roughly 38% of the adult U.S. population – have prediabetes
- Nearly 90% of people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese
- Just over 34% of people with diabetes get less than 10 minutes a week of moderate or vigorous physical activity
And while it can be tempting to dismiss their health implications, each of those numbers represents a person with a serious, potentially life-changing health condition.
November is National Diabetes Month, dedicated to raising awareness and improving care through education and prevention. We talked to the Supervisor of Diabetes Education at Swedish, Brian Higginson, RDN, CDCES, to get answers to frequently asked questions about diabetes. Here's what he shared.
What is diabetes?
“Diabetes is a condition that changes how our bodies use food to produce energy. The food you eat converts into a form of sugar in the blood called glucose. Glucose is your body’s main source of fuel. After digestion, glucose moves into the bloodstream where it works with a hormone called insulin to move it into your cells,” says Brian.
“Insulin is produced by a large gland behind the stomach called the pancreas. In people who don’t have diabetes, the pancreas makes enough insulin to support their glucose and energy levels. In people with diabetes, the pancreas makes either insufficient insulin or no insulin, and it typically prevents their cells from properly using the insulin that is made. Over time, these changes cause excess glucose in your blood. This can lead to very serious health problems throughout your whole body,” he explains.
Are there different types of diabetes?
The two most common types of diabetes are Type 1 and Type 2.
“Type 1 diabetes used to be called juvenile onset diabetes. With this form of diabetes, your body does not make any insulin. The only way someone with Type 1 diabetes can get insulin into their body is by injection, usually multiple times per day,” says Brian.
“In Type 2 diabetes, your body produces insufficient insulin or the insulin it does make doesn’t work the way it should. This type of diabetes accounts for approximately 90% of the cases of diabetes throughout the world,” he adds.
What increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes?
“The largest risk factor for developing Type 2 diabetes is being overweight or obese,” says Brian. “Other major risk factors include having a close family member who has developed diabetes, being older than 40, or giving birth to a baby weighing more than nine pounds. Virtually all adults worldwide are at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.”
What is the impact of Type 2 diabetes?
“When blood glucose is elevated for extended periods, it leads to damage within the body’s organs and blood vessels,” says Brian.
He lists the most common health risks of diabetes, including:
- Heart and cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack or stroke
- Eye complications, including blindness
- Kidney complications, which can cause kidney failure and the need for dialysis
- Nerve damage
- Increased risk of amputation
- Sexual issues
How is Type 2 diabetes treated?
“Effective treatment of Type 2 diabetes includes a combination of medication, improved diet and increased physical activity,” says Brian. “For the majority of people, even modest weight loss can help. Several studies have shown that people who lose at least 7% of their body weight have better glucose management without making other changes to their routine.”
“With Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas gradually loses the ability to make enough insulin. Many people with Type 2 diabetes will likely need medication to help improve their blood glucose management,” he adds.
What recent advancements have been made in the care of Type 2 diabetes?
“Recent advances include a wider variety of medications that impact blood glucose utilization within your body. Some are medications that reduce the amount of glucose that is absorbed through your intestines. Others increase the amount of glucose excreted in the urine. Different medications improve your body’s use of its naturally produced insulin and some lower the amount of glucose made by other organs,” says Brian.
“There is also an increase in the availability of small devices placed on the skin called Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs). CGMs measure the amount of glucose in your body every five minutes or less, 24 hours a day. These devices are starting to replace the need for daily finger sticks to test the blood glucose level and will likely become a more routine part of diabetes self-management in the not-so-distant future,” he explains.
Why does the number of people with Type 2 diabetes continue to rise?
“No single factor is responsible for the increasing number of people with Type 2 diabetes. High levels of stress or illness can sometimes be the trigger. Sometimes, there is no obvious reason. The increase in people across the planet who are overweight or obese is likely the largest factor,” says Brian.
“Changes in our day-to-day lifestyles also play a role. With the ongoing improvements in technology, we no longer need to do as much physical activity in our daily routines. Many foods that are common parts of people’s daily diets – such as bread, rice, potatoes and added sugars – are high in carbohydrates and increase blood glucose levels,” he continues.
Can Type 2 diabetes be prevented?
“In an ideal world, prevention would be the best treatment. Adopting a healthy lifestyle is the ideal approach,” says Brian as he explains what that would entail:
- Engaging in physical activity most days
- Eating a balanced diet
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Reducing stress levels
“After prevention, modifying the diet by reducing the overall intake of carbohydrates is the next best approach. Eliminating sweetened drinks such as soda or sugary drinks helps. So does increasing your intake of non-starchy vegetables on a daily basis,” explains Brian. “Being mindful of your food intake is an effective prevention strategy. Eating until you’re no longer hungry instead of eating until you’re ‘stuffed’ helps create a better relationship with food. It also reduces the overall amount of food eaten.”
“Including physical activity in your day regularly also helps reduce the development of diabetes. Physical activity helps your body metabolize the glucose in your blood while also making your body’s cells more sensitive to naturally produced insulin,” he continues.
What services does Swedish offer for people with diabetes?
“We have a team of nurses, dieticians and certified diabetes educators who provide diabetes education and counseling at Swedish First Hill campus, Swedish Edmonds campus and Swedish Issaquah Campus,” says Brian. Diabetes education can be provided in an individual or a group session. “We also offer non-diabetes-related nutritional counseling for a wide variety of health issues. Telehealth services are available for anyone who resides in Washington state.”
“Our team of educators helps you identify your biggest hurdles. Then we work with you to find realistic solutions that fit into your daily routines,” explains Brian. “We want to help you lead your best possible life.”
Learn more and find a provider
The Swedish Diabetes Education Center offers educational resources, classes and consultations to help people with diabetes manage their condition and lessen its impact on their lives. Our program is recognized by the American Diabetes Association.
Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a provider who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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