One night while driving home from work, I stopped at a toll plaza for a rest break. When I got out of my car, I heard a revving noise in my ears, like the sound of a train engine. I became so dizzy that I had problems standing. After sitting for several minutes and getting something to eat, I regained my composure, and I was able to drive home. After the episode, I visited my doctor, who performed a blood test that led to a diagnosis: I was borderline diabetic. Several months later I became a Type 2 diabetic.
I have been living with Type 2 diabetes for the past 15 years. With this type of diabetes, your pancreas does not make enough insulin, the insulin that your body makes does not work as well as it should, and your liver makes too much sugar. When sugar (glucose) builds up in the blood, over time it can lead to serious medical problems, such as heart problems, kidney problems, blindness, and amputation.
Diabetes is one of the world’s fastest-growing diseases and can have a significant negative impact on diabetics’ lives. According to the American Diabetes Association, one in three Americans has prediabetes (with blood sugar levels not high enough to be classified as diabetes), and 15 to 30 percent of people with prediabetes will develop Type 2 diabetes within five years. In the United States, 9.3 percent of the population, or about 29 million people, have diabetes, of which more than a quarter, an estimated 8.1 million people, are undiagnosed. People with diagnosed diabetes incur average medical expenditures of about $13,700 a year, more than half of which ($7,900) is due to diabetes. The total estimated cost of diagnosed diabetes in the United States in 2012 was $245 billion, including $176 billion in direct medical costs and $69 billion in reduced productivity, which creates a huge burden for employers.
Seeing the Signs
My diabetes was a chance diagnosis. Initially, I felt devastated. It hit me like a semi. In hindsight, however, I see the risk factors I missed, such as lifestyle and family history. I was probably prediabetic months before the episode occurred. I had been working long hours with a hectic schedule, leaving me little time to attend to my health. If your mother, father, sister, or brother has heart disease or diabetes, your risk goes up. My grandmother had Type 1 diabetes. And I am an African-American, an ethnic group with a higher risk for the disease.
African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, American Indians, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and Asian-Americans have a higher risk for Type 2 diabetes, as well as heart disease and stroke, partly because these populations are more likely to be overweight and have high blood pressure. Also, men are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than women. Other risk factors include age (risk begins increasing after age 40) and physical inactivity, according to the ADA.
Some signs of diabetes are subtle and difficult to notice, such as needing to urinate frequently, excessive thirst, weight loss, feeling shaky and hungry, blurred vision, frequent fatigue, skin cuts and scrapes that heal slowly, mood changes, tingling in the feet, susceptibility to urinary tract or yeast infections, and joint soreness. Bring such signs to your doctor’s attention.
People with diabetes learn to live with it every hour of every day. There’s not an area of my daily life that is unaffected, either because I have to think about it or take action or because others in my life must consider my diabetes. For example, one of the goals of treating Type 2 diabetes is to lower blood sugar, but you don’t want it going too low, which can lead to confusion, impaired vision, seizures, or unconsciousness, potentially causing accidents. I control my blood sugar levels with frequent monitoring, medication, and lifestyle changes.
The good news is that you can take positive steps to reduce your risk of diabetes, prevent or delay it, and control its impacts. The ADA recommends choosing healthy foods, losing 7 percent of your body weight if you’re overweight, getting regular medical checkups, and engaging in moderate exercise, such as taking brisk walks for 30 minutes a day. If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, lowering and controlling blood sugar may help prevent or delay complications. Despite this being a tough disease, it also can be a blessing in disguise since it causes you to focus on your lifestyle, diet, and exercise.
If you’re at risk of or diagnosed with diabetes and want to take an active role in your health, how should you start? One step at a time. Think of each small step as one piece of your effort to change your habits and increase your life span. Making changes gradually over a period of months and years gives you the best chance to attain and maintain a healthy weight and prevent Type 2 diabetes. Just a few small changes can make a big impact on your overall health. Find what works for you.
Commodor Hall is ISRI’s director of transportation safety.
Resources for Employers
The American Diabetes Association offers information and tools for diabetes awareness, detection, and prevention that businesses can use as part of their employee wellness programs. Here are a few tips from the ADA’s “Stop Diabetes@ Work Employer Playbook”:
■ Create a wellness team, if you don’t already have one, and share the ADA’s online resources.
■ Distribute the ADA’s diabetes risk test to help spread awareness of undiagnosed diabetes and prediabetes.
■ Provide employees healthy food choices in the workplace, share recipes and meal plans, and set an example by improving your own diet.
■ Offer “lunch-and-learn” programs on topics such as heart health and surviving the holidays.
■ Encourage workers to use the stairs instead of elevators.
■ Create a walking group or biking club for employees.
■ Incorporate physical activity in otherwise sedentary jobs, such as by allowing attendees at meetings to stand, stretch, or pace as needed or allowing office workers to use a standing desk.
Visit www.diabetes.org/atwork or download the “Stop Diabetes@Work Employer Playbook” from www.diabetes.org/assets/pdfs/community/stop-d-at-work/sdw-employer-playbook.pdf.