Diabetes is a word everyone knows, in fact it is too well known and this leads to many people not appreciating quite what a serious condition it can be.
If you ask many people what diabetes is, the most common answer is: “Something to do with sugar levels.” That is true, but there is a lot more to it than that.
It is estimated that around 2.6 million people in the UK have diabetes – the World Health Organization say around 180 million people worldwide suffer from the disease, so it is certainly prevalent.
Worse, the number of sufferers are increasing – in the UK one person is diagnosed with diabetes every three minutes and three people die from its complications every hour. More scary still, there are a large number of people who have diabetes or a pre-diabetic condition, and do not know it – it is estimated that over 750,000 people in Britain may have the disease without it having been officially diagnosed. A research team has recently studied 6,700 people in the UK aged between 52 and 59. Out of these over 500 had type 2 diabetes and while only 12% of the women were unaware of their problem, over a fifth of the men had no idea at all. The researchers say this is probably because men are more reluctant to visit a doctor than women.
Either way, diabetes is something we should be aware of.
When we eat, a high proportion of the food is turned into glucose (or sugar) to give us energy. Our pancreas produces a hormone called insulin which helps us control the levels of glucose in our blood and the amount of glucose that is absorbed by the cells of our bodies.
There are two main types of diabetes, Type 1 and Type 2, and both of these mean we have too much glucose in the blood.
Type 1 really relates to younger people and is usually developed as a child or young adult when the disease has destroyed the pancreatic cells. They are then unable to make enough insulin to control sugar levels.
Far more common is Type 2 diabetes. This accounts for around 90% of all diabetes and is caused by different reasons from Type 1, but the results are the same – the body is not producing enough insulin, or not using what it produces effectively. Either way, sugar builds up in the bloodstream.
The symptoms of Type 2 can come on slowly but suddenly you may realise something is wrong. For champion rower Sir Steven Redgrave, he suddenly became aware he was drinking excessive amounts of water during training. Luckily his wife was a doctor and when he mentioned this, she advised him to get his blood sugar levels tested – his blood sugar level was 32 compared with a norm of under 10. He was only 35 but had developed Type 2 diabetes – so while it is far more common in older people, this shows it can effect anyone, whatever their age or level of fitness.
Thirst is indeed one of the most obvious symptoms of Type 2 diabetes but other symptoms can include a need to urinate more than usual, tiredness, irritability, nausea, weight loss, genital itchiness and blurred vision. The symptoms can be varied, vague and also very mild which is why early signs of diabetes can often go undetected.
The NHS website has links to two interesting sections – an NHS online symptom checker and a Diabetes UK two minute test.
However, of course the very first port of call should be your doctor if you have any concerns at all. Diabetes can lead to a range of serious health problems including heart disease, blindness and kidney failure, so it is very important that you get diagnosed quickly.
Diagnosis is straightforward using a small blood sample to check your blood sugar levels.
Type 2 diabetes can be associated with overweight and an unhealthy lifestyle (80% of people diagnosed with diabetes are overweight), so treatment often initially looks at diet and exercise. Treatment can also include medication which can help the pancreas produce more insulin, or help the body use the insulin better, or slow down the rate at which the body absorbs glucose from the intestine. Insulin through injections or a pump may also be subscribed.
With lifestyle changes and careful monitoring of the right levels of medication, diabetes can today be very well controlled.
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