Diabetes is growing, but so is the treatment

HANCOCK – Diabetes diagnoses are on the rise nationally, and with 10 percent of adults in the western Upper Peninsula suffering from the disease, the trend is certainly present locally.

The Western Upper Peninsula Health Department’s findings from its community health assessment paint an alarming picture, which includes growing prevalence among youth, but at least diabetes treatment and care seem to be keeping pace with the problem.

“We’d rather scale back on the diabetes numbers if we could, but even though diabetes is progressing, so is the treatment,” said Kelly Aho, health education nurse at Portage Health. “… Typically if we can get sometimes even a little bit of education, historically we’re seeing most people are doing very well when you intervene early.”

Improper care or ignoring diabetes can have some serious consequences, including loss of eyesight, amputations due to poor circulation and kidney problems. But it doesn’t have to be that way for those who take care of themselves, particularly in relation to obesity, the primary risk factor for diabetes.

“Even if you’re considered overweight or obese, if you lost 5 percent of your body weight that goes a long way to reducing your risk of becoming Type 2, preventing or at least delaying that diagnoses,” Aho said.

Of the 26 million Americans diagnosed with diabetes – and an estimated 7 million are undiagnosed – 17 million are Type 2, which means the body either does not produce enough insulin or the cells ignore the insulin. Type 1 is considered juvenile-onset diabetes and is usually insulin dependent.

Diabetes prevention, diagnosis and care all start with regular physician check-ups.

“We want to stress prevention, but also following up with your provider at least annually,” Aho said. “Those patients we have that are known diabetics work really hard to get their sugars to a target value. We’re not always successful, but we’re constantly working toward that goal.”

The gold standard for diagnosing diabetes is a non-fasting blood test called a hemoglobin A1C, which shows the level of glucose in the blood over the past 3-4 months.

“You can’t cheat anymore,” said 66-year-old Dollar Bay resident John Mattson, who was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes about 10 years ago. “Years ago people would say I’m not going to eat sugar for a couple days and get my blood test. … Now the numbers don’t lie.”

Mattson has always been active – running five days a week and playing basketball twice a week – and aside from his sophomore year of college, has never been overweight. Like many diabetics, though, the disease runs in his family.

“If you have one parent with Type 2 or with diabetes, you have a 40 percent chance, if you have two, it’s a 70 percent chance,” Aho said. “Knowing you have a family history should be more motivation … to do those lifestyle changes with diet and activity levels, to be more diligent about coming to your provider.”

Mattson eats healthier now, though he acknowledges it takes a team effort with his wife Cheryl to overcome his weakness for candy and fast food.

“I eat healthier, and fortunately my wife really watches,” he said. “There’s no candy in the house. She bakes and cooks with Splenda.”

He also still exercises five days a week. According to Aho, 150 minutes of activity per week minimum, diet modification – which is a lot easier now that more foods are catered toward a growing diabetic population – and weight loss can significantly reduce the risk for diabetes and the success in treating it.

Treatment often also includes oral medication, but after a while, most diabetics will need insulin treatments. Even those are improving, though.

“Even if you’re well-controlled, you’re doing everything right, the natural progression of diabetes is you will end up on insulin at some point,” Aho said, “but don’t be afraid of insulin.”

“The insulin injections are really easy now,” Mattson said. “Mine looks like a pen. You just dial it in and it’s got a very short needle on it. It’s a lot easier than it used to be.”

There are a variety of new technologies for testing blood sugar levels as well, including the standard finger poke, but also testing on the forearm. The process can sometimes be confusing, but help is available.

“We have patients that just don’t feel like they have a handle on things, or need some direction. I’m here, dieticians are here, we have dieticians that work specifically with our outpatient population,” Aho said. “Be an active participant in your care.”