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The Prevalence and Associated Health Risks of Diabetes

Eighteen million — that's roughly the population of Massachusetts, Indiana and Tennessee. Combined.

It's also the number of people in this country who have diabetes — a figure that is staggering both for its size and for the growth rate of the disease.

In 2002, 6.3 percent of Americans had diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of people who reported having the disease more than doubled in the relatively short period of years between 1980 and 2002. And perhaps most troubling, the death rate has grown as well, to more than 200,000 diabetes-related deaths each year, making it the sixth-leading cause of death in America.

Those numbers help to convey the seriousness of diabetes and its escalating prevalence, but they do not tell the whole story.

For a more complete picture of the role diabetes plays in the national health care picture, consider it in concert with its companion diseases. It often goes hand-in-hand with hypertension, cardiovascular conditions, kidney disorders and eye problems. Adults with diabetes have two to four times the risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases than adults without diabetes, according to federal health statistics.

Many diabetics have no idea that they are at risk for these conditions, and others have one or more of these diseases without knowing it until the complications create serious health problems.

One of the main diseases often associated with diabetes is hypertension, also known as high blood pressure. When the condition is present, blood flows through the blood vessels with great force, potentially leading to heart attacks, kidney problems and strokes.

Health experts consider hypertension to be a silent killer, one that often isn't detected until it is too late. But diabetics can do much to help themselves avoid hypertension and the increased likelihood of cardiovascular problems associated with it by improving their eating habits and exercising more often.

How important is it to reduce the risk of hypertension? The CDC offers a clear-cut look at what could happen if people lowered their blood pressure and controlled glucose and cholesterol. The improvements in those areas could dramatically change the death toll for diabetics.

Heart disease and stroke cause about 65 percent of deaths among people with diabetes, but these deaths could be reduced by 30 percent with improved care to control blood pressure, blood glucose and blood cholesterol levels, the CDC reports.

Awareness and regular health examinations also are key factors in stemming the threat of kidney problems and eye diseases that often are associated with diabetes.

As with hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, better nutrition and more exercise can help reduce kidney failure, lowering the levels of kidney failure among diabetics from more than 40,000 each year. And experts note that regular eye exams and treatment could prevent up to 90 percent of diabetes-related blindness. Currently, according to federal health statistics, only about 64 percent of people with diabetes receive annual dilated eye exams.

With diabetes and all the diseases and conditions that often accompany it, the consistent advice of experts is that you should visit your health care provider, talk to a dietitian, get active, keep track of what you eat and how much insulin you take, and monitor your glucose levels regularly.

Adapted by Editorial Staff, January, 2005
Last update, July 2008

 


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