Introduction to Diabetes
Diabetes is a serious disease that can lead to a number of complications.
The good news is that diabetes can be managed -- and many of its complication can be prevented -- with proper self-care and treatment!
If you smoke, stop. If you’re overweight, eat less and exercise. Work with your doctor to control your blood pressure and cholesterol.
Diabetes: basic facts
More than 40 percent of American adults have diabetes or are at increased risk of developing the disease. In the coming years, the number of Americans with diabetes will likely double, reaching an estimated 44.1 million people. The implications of such a trend are staggering! Not only is diabetes the seventh most common cause of death and a leading cause of blindness, heart disease, amputation, end stage kidney disease and liver problems — it is extremely expensive to treat. A third of all Medicare spending is related to diabetes and its many complications.
What is this costly disease and why does it occur?
What is diabetes?
People with diabetes cannot maintain healthy levels of blood glucose unless they carefully monitor their food intake and in most cases, take medication. While other people experience occasional bouts of high blood glucose, people with diabetes experience this problem more severely and frequently unless they are appropriately treated. Abnormally high blood glucose levels that persist over time can lead to a number of serious complications.
What causes blood glucose to rise?
A small fraction -- as few as 5 percent -- of people with diabetes are unable to make any insulin at all, a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps the body process carbohydrates from meals. This condition is known as type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys the body’s own pancreas. The damaged pancreas can no longer produce insulin for the body, so people with type 1 diabetes must use insulin injections in order to survive.
The vast majority -- as many as 95 percent -- of people with diabetes can produce normal levels of insulin, but their bodies cannot appropriately respond to the hormone. In people who have type 2 diabetes, insulin is no longer effective at lowering blood glucose. Sometimes people with diabetes can keep their blood glucose at healthy levels by controlling the amount of carbohydrates in their diet. In most cases, medication is needed in the form of pills. Eventually, some people with type 2 diabetes lose their ability to produce insulin and must use insulin injections.
What common health problems occur in people with diabetes?
People with diabetes are at greater risk than others of developing complications. Generally, these problems fall into one of two categories:
Acute problems arise quickly and get better with prompt treatment. For example, eating too many carbs or forgetting to take medication can cause high blood glucose in people with diabetes. Until it is treated, high blood glucose causes blurry vision, fatigue, thirstiness and urinating more often than usual.
Chronic problems develop over many years and are difficult to reverse. For example, people who have uncontrolled diabetes for many years often develop diseases that affect the blood vessels, both big and small, throughout the body. People with diabetes are two to three times more likely than other people to develop heart disease. They are also at risk for developing diseases of the eyes, nerves and kidney.
How is diabetes treated?
Multiple options are available for treating diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day to control their blood glucose. Some people with type 2 diabetes can control their blood glucose by monitoring their diet, but most require pills or insulin.
What it all means
Diabetes is a growing problem in the United States and around the world. This disease is expensive to treat and can lead to a number of serious complications, including death, if diagnosed late or left untreated.
Reviewed by Dr. Rita R. Kalyani and Dr. Mark D. Corriere from the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism.
- Grantham, Paula, RN, BSN
- MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician