Guest Op-Ed: Why Preventing Diabetes Should Be a Priority at All Ages

By Dr. Donna O’Shea 

More than 96 million Americans, or 1 in 3 adults, live with a potentially life-altering condition – yet many of them are unaware they even have it. 

That condition is prediabetes, which in up to 70% of cases develops into diabetes. Today, more than 37 million Americans already live with diabetes, which if left untreated can contribute to a host of health issues, including heart disease, vision loss, nerve damage and more. In Massachusetts, 7.7% of adults over age 18 have been diagnosed with diabetes.

While the risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases with age, taking steps to avoid or more effectively manage this condition should be a priority for people of all ages. For November’s American Diabetes Month, here is important information to consider about this condition.

Types of diabetes: Diabetes alters the body’s ability to create energy from the food you eat and can develop in three forms. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body cannot produce insulin on its own, typically due to genetic factors. It accounts for approximately 5% of all diabetes cases, there is no known prevention and is typically diagnosed during childhood. Type 2 diabetes accounts for up to 95% of all cases and develops when the body can’t use the insulin it produces, typically due to inactivity and poor nutrition. Finally, gestational diabetes may occur in pregnant women, often due to the hormones and weight gain associated with pregnancy.

Diabetes in children: While type 1 diabetes was historically known as juvenile diabetes, that term is no longer truly applicable due to the surging prevalence of type 2 diabetes among children. One primary driver of this is the mounting rates of childhood obesity, which now affects 1 in 5 young people. It’s important to note children are at a higher risk of type 2 diabetes if they have a family member with this condition, are overweight, don’t get enough physical activity or have prediabetes. Type 2 diabetes in children can lead to an array of health issues in the short- and long-term, including depression, eating disorders, eye damage, heart disease and more. To help young people reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, make activity a priority throughout the day. Whenever possible, go for a 15-minute walk after meals, as doing so can help the body move sugar from the blood into the muscle cells to help avoid blood sugar spikes.  

 Diabetes in adults: The number of adults with diabetes has more than doubled during the last two decades. Living with prediabetes, being overweight, not getting enough physical exercise and being over age 45 all put people at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. For working-age adults with this condition, it’s critical to consistently track blood sugar levels, ideally with a continuous glucose monitor. In fact, a growing number of health plans are starting to cover this type of technology, which uses a sensor, often worn on the abdomen, to continuously read glucose levels and transmit the data to a smartphone. Another important strategy for adults and children is to get a routine comprehensive eye exam, which can help diagnose diabetic retinopathy and help individuals recognize the need to better control their blood glucose levels. Diabetic retinopathy may occur in people with diabetes and causes damage to the blood vessels in the retina, leading to blindness in some cases.

Diabetes in older adults: Nearly 30% of adults 65 and older live with diabetes, which increases the risk for certain cancers and cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Not only that, older adults with diabetes are more likely to develop certain vision issues, such as glaucoma and cataracts, and the condition may contribute to hearing loss by causing nerve damage in the inner ear. Staying active and eating a balanced diet is crucial, including a focus on consuming healthy proteins (chicken, fish or turkey), non-starchy fibrous vegetables (broccoli, green beans or carrots) and a moderate amount of carbohydrates (brown rice, sweet potato or whole-grain breads or pasta). Interval eating may also be a strategy to consider, including waiting at least an hour after waking up to eat breakfast and avoiding food within three hours of sleep.

For many people, type 2 diabetes is largely preventable with lifestyle modifications, such as a nutritious diet, consistent exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. Understanding your risk factors and staying on top of your health – starting during childhood and as you age – may help you prevent or better manage type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Donna O’Shea is the Chief Medical Officer of Population Health for UnitedHealthcare.

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