Diabetes is a serious disease, with the potential to cause horrible complications, even death. Yet most cases of type 2 diabetes and prediabetes are preventable. November – American Diabetes Month – is a good time to understand how serious this disease is, and how to prevent diabetes and prediabetes.

The disease of our time

Almost 30 million Americans have diabetes and one in three will develop diabetes in their lifetime. Diabetes is increasing so fast that public health experts call it an epidemic. Here’s why:

  • Almost 10 percent of the U.S. population has diabetes
  • About a third of people with diabetes don’t know they have it
  • About a third who know they have diabetes are not receiving treatment
  • Another 86 million Americans have prediabetes; 90 percent don’t know it

Adults with diabetes die earlier and live with disabilities longer than non-diabetics. Diabetes causes long-term damage to the body. It can damage your eyes, kidneys, nerves and blood vessels; cause heart attacks, heart disease, stroke and amputations; and cause gum problems and tooth loss.

Types of diabetes

Most type 1 diabetes patients are born with the disease and are diagnosed as children. Type 1 is caused when the body’s immune system destroys the cells that make insulin. The body changes food into glucose. Insulin is needed to allow glucose be used as energy to fuel the body. About 5 percent of Americans with diabetes have type 1. There is no cure and no way to prevent type 1 diabetes.

The epidemic that experts are so concerned about involves type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body does not make enough insulin or doesn’t use insulin well. Type 2 – often referred to as a lifestyle disease – is caused by unhealthy food choices, lack of exercise and being overweight. Almost all type 2 diabetes is preventable.

Historically an adult disease, an increasing number of children and young adults have type 2 diabetes. Due to children’s increasing obesity and lack of exercise, diabetes is now the third most common severe and chronic childhood disease in the United States.

Prediabetes can occur when blood glucose is higher than normal but not high enough to be called diabetes. However, having prediabetes puts you at higher risk of getting type 2 diabetes.

About 4 percent of pregnant women develop gestational diabetes. About half of women who had gestational diabetes will develop type 2 diabetes within 15 years.

Diabetes symptoms include:

  • Extreme hunger
  • Extreme thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Blurry eyesight
  • Slow-healing wounds, sores or bruises
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
  • Frequent or recurring skin, gum, bladder or vaginal yeast infections

Other signs include darkening skin around the neck or armpits, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and, in women, skipped or absent periods.

However, some people never have any of these symptoms. The only way to know if you have diabetes or prediabetes is to have a blood test. Experts recommend screening for both type 2 diabetes and prediabetes for everyone age 45 or older. Additionally, all adults over age 18 with diabetes risk factors such as obesity, family history of diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol, should also be screened.

Best options for diabetes treatment

Diabetes cannot be cured, but many people live long and healthy lives with effective treatment that keeps it under control. The key is making some lifestyle changes. These changes are up to you. Read more about your treatment options here.

Make healthier food and beverage choices. There is no one diabetic diet for all people with diabetes. You can learn how to develop a personal meal plan, what foods will help or hurt you and how to improve your overall diet here.

Get regular exercise. Any physical activity helps insulin lower your blood glucose levels. Regular exercise also helps manage your weight, helps your heart and lungs and improves overall fitness. People with diabetes need to take extra precautions when they exercise. Learn what to do before and after exercise and how to set goals for regular activity here.

Maintain a healthy weight. Skinny should not be the goal for diabetic management. Eating and drinking less – reducing total calorie intake – is more effective for people with diabetes than weight loss. Fewer calories and regular exercise provide the best blood glucose control, independent of body weight and weight loss. Find more information about your weight’s impact on diabetes and prediabetes here.

Prevent diabetes complications. Diabetes puts you at risk for serious complications with your heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes, kidneys, bones, joints, skin, teeth and gums, as well as emotional problems. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness and a major cause of amputations. Many people with diabetes are spending a significant amount of their lives with disabilities. Learn how to prevent complications here.

You may also want to find out how diabetes effects your heart. People with diabetes have a four-times-greater risk for heart disease or stroke than a non-diabetic.

The stress of living with diabetes can cause depression and other emotional issues. Diabetes is a long-term, complicated and demanding disease. It’s normal to feel stress, frustration, anxiety or even depression. A diabetes diagnosis challenges you to face new limits on what you can do. It takes time to adjust to this new reality. Many people who are newly diagnosed with diabetes say they experience a roller coaster of emotions. Treating your emotional health is as important as treating your physical needs. Recognizing diabetes’ emotional stressors can help keep the disease under control and lessen your chance of complications. Learn more about coping techniques here.

Are you getting the best diabetes care?

Learn about 10 key areas of treatment and care and why they are important here. If your doctor puts you on diabetes medications, learn why it’s important to take them exactly as prescribed here.

Learn about diabetes

One of the greatest tools to keep diabetes under control is knowledge. Learn all you can about diabetes. An easy way to get started on your learning journey is to take a free class, taught by certified educators in your community and designed for adults. People who have taken the diabetes education classes have reduced serious complications such as heart disease, amputations of lower limbs, kidney failure, nerve damage and blindness. Class attendees have reduced their weight by learning what to eat, improved their blood glucose levels and reduced their chance of dying from diabetes. Learn about the free classes here.

Get the facts about your health

Diabetes cannot be treated, and prediabetes cannot be stopped before it turns into type 2 diabetes, unless you are tested. Only a blood test can determine if you’re at risk. Blood tests are also the way people with diabetes determine how well they’re managing the disease.

  • A fasting blood glucose test is usually done in the morning after not eating for eight to 14 hours (called a fasting blood sugar test). If your blood glucose is 126 mg/dL or higher for more than two tests, it indicates diabetes. If the test is from 100 to 125 mg/dL it suggests prediabetes.
  • Oral glucose tolerance test involves drinking glucose dissolved in water. The amount of glucose in your blood is measured after two hours. A level at 200 mg/dL or higher indicates diabetes.
  • Random blood glucose tests measure your blood glucose level at any time of day, regardless of when you last ate. A level at 200 mg/dL or higher indicates diabetes.
  • The A1c test shows how well you managed your diabetes/prediabetes over the past three months.

To help your family avoid diabetes/prediabetes, learn about the importance of prevention here.