A Closer Look at Diabetes Awareness Month
Nov 13, 2023
Diabetes is a chronic illness affecting over 37 million Americans today.1 Here in North Carolina, over 12% of the adult population have been diagnosed with diabetes and nearly 35% with prediabetes.2 Diabetes is a growing epidemic on both a local and national level and is often attributed to dieting and sugar intake. However, diabetes is a condition which affects the entire body, often resulting in serious health complications like heart disease, neuropathy, and even blindness.
For Diabetes Awareness Month we are encouraging everyone to focus their sights on learning more about this condition and how to prevent and manage it. Even if you are not diabetic yourself, chances are you either know someone who is, or you may be at risk of developing diabetes later in life.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by a buildup of glucose in the bloodstream. This is either due to a lack of insulin or the body’s inability to properly use insulin. Diabetes directly affects one’s ability to convert carbohydrates (or glucose) into energy.
The best way to understand diabetes is to understand the journey of our food. Carbohydrates are an essential source of energy. When we eat, carbohydrates are converted into glucose and released into the bloodstream where it remains until the pancreas produces insulin. Insulin then carries glucose into our cells where it is converted into energy. Unfortunately, this process doesn’t work for those with diabetes.
Diabetes is classified by Type 1, Type 2, and several other less common types such as gestational diabetes. All types of diabetes have one thing in common — too much glucose in the bloodstream, which can result in serious and sometimes life-threatening health complications.
Type 1 Diabetes is most often diagnosed in children however, it can happen at any time in life and the onset can be quite sudden. Type 1 Diabetes is classified as an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This means the body is not able to produce any insulin, a necessary hormone for our bodies to convert glucose into energy. Without insulin, glucose builds up into the bloodstream resulting in high blood sugar levels.
Type 2 Diabetes happens because of a problem in the way the body regulates and uses sugar as fuel. While most common in middle-aged and older adults, there has been an increase in cases of type 2 diabetes in children. Formerly known as Adult-onset diabetes, Type 2 Diabetes is when the body either uses insulin inefficiently or is unable to produce enough. The onset of Type 2 Diabetes is often gradual, sometimes without any symptoms.
There is much overlap between the symptoms of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes, but the cause and treatments can vary quite differently.
Warning Signs and Symptoms
There are several common symptoms of diabetes, although it’s important to note that some people experience symptoms so mild they go unnoticed. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms it is important to see a doctor immediately for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
- Dehydration or feeling thirsty
- Feeling hungry, even when eating
- Extreme fatigue
- Frequent urination
- Neuropathy, or a tingling sensation in the hands or feet
- Unexpected or rapid weight loss
- Wounds which are slow to heal
- Blurry vision
In more severe cases, a life-threatening condition known as Diabetic Ketoacidosis, or DKA, can occur, which is when blood sugar levels reach such a dangerously high level that the body is no longer able to absorb nutrients. In addition to the above symptoms, other warning signs include vomiting, heavy breathing, or a fruity odor on the breath. DKA can lead to unconsciousness or death, so it is extremely important to seek medical attention immediately.
What is Prediabetes?
Prediabetes is another category of concern which often (but not always) occurs before a Type 2 Diabetes diagnosis. Prediabetes means that blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but not quite high enough to be classified as diabetes. There are no clear symptoms, which is likely why more than 8 out of 10 adults who have prediabetes are unaware they have it.3 Those with the following characteristics are at a higher risk:
- Over 40 years of age
- A family history of Type 2 Diabetes
- Having a BMI (body mass index) classified as overweight
- High blood pressure
- Sedentary lifestyle
- A history of gestational diabetes
The good news about prediabetes is that you have a chance to delay the onset of Type 2 Diabetes or prevent it altogether! Healthy habits like spending more time being physically active and maintaining a healthy BMI can go a long way. Diet changes can also make a huge impact, such as watching your portion sizes and eating healthy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Diabetes and Your Eye Health
Diabetics are at a much higher risk of developing vision problems like diabetic eye disease, vision loss and even blindness. Diabetic Eye Disease is a term used to describe several vision problems which are all linked to diabetes including: diabetic retinopathy, macular edema, cataracts, and glaucoma. Although cataracts and glaucoma are not always linked to diabetes, those diagnosed with diabetes are more likely to develop cataracts at a younger age and are twice as likely to develop glaucoma.
Diabetic Retinopathy is the most common type of diabetic eye disease. Continuously high blood sugar levels can damage the tiny blood vessels in the back of the eye. These blood vessels deliver blood and oxygen to the retina which is essential for clear, healthy vision. Compromised blood vessels are not able to effectively send blood to the retina, which can lead to vision loss or blindness. Diabetic retinopathy is the number one cause of preventable blindness in adults. Symptoms are not always apparent in early stages of diabetic retinopathy, which is why regular eye appointments are so important. If you are diabetic, here are some of the symptoms to look out for:
- Blurry vision
- Double vision
- Dark spots
- Poor color perception
- Pain, pressure, or redness
- Flashing lights or floaters
- Any sudden changes in your vision
Even if blood sugar levels are well maintained, diabetics have unique vision care needs and should regularly see an optometrist. The good news is that 95% of vision loss related to diabetes can be prevented, and the best preventative method is attending annual diabetic eye exams.
Leeann Geerts, OD, FAAO, an optometrist with Wilmington Eye, works with patients who have diabetes and prediabetes, and she has experience helping patients manage their diabetes and prevent the onset of diabetic retinopathy. In this interview with WECT, Dr. Geerts explains the ways in which optometrists becomes an integral part of the diabetic care team, ensuring all aspects of the patient’s health are addressed.
Managing Diabetes and Preventing Further Health Complications
Managing your diabetes is essential to preventing complications like vision loss and other serious health concerns. One of the most important steps is to assemble your health care team to guide you through the process, including an optometrist to monitor your visual health. Below are some of the other steps you can take to effectively manage your diabetes or help a loved one who has been diagnosed.
- Learn how to monitor blood glucose levels and do so regularly
- Measure your A1C — a critical step in measuring the effectiveness of your treatment plan
- Maintain a healthy blood pressure
- Keep your cholesterol in check
- Eat healthy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
- Maintain portion control
- Be physically active
Living with diabetes can be challenging, but with the right approach you can still live a healthy life with minimal risk of complications. You can find a wealth of information on diabetes prevention, management, treatment, and more from the American Diabetes Association at diabetes.org.
1American Diabetes Association. About Diabetes: Examine the Facts. https://diabetes.org/about-diabetes/statistics
2American Diabetes Association. The Burden of Diabetes in North Carolina. https://diabetes.org/sites/default/files/2023-09/ADV_2023_State_Fact_sheets_all_rev_North_Carolina.pdf
3CDC National Diabetes Prevention Program. About Prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/prevention/about-prediabetes.html