Diabetes and Its Prevention

Diabetes is a chronic, metabolic disease characterized by elevated levels of blood glucose (or blood sugar), which leads over time to serious damage to the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys and nerves. The most common is type 2 diabetes, usually in adults, which occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin or doesn’t make enough insulin. In the past three decades, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has risen dramatically in countries of all income levels. Type 1 diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin by itself. For people living with diabetes, access to affordable treatment, including insulin, is critical to their survival. There is a globally agreed target to halt the rise in diabetes and obesity by 2025.

Did you know?

Diabetes is one of the leading causes of death in the world

2 main types

Type 1 diabetes (lack of insulin) and type 2 diabetes (ineffective use of insulin)

About 422 million people worldwide have diabetes, the majority living in low-and middle-income countries, and 1.5 million deaths are directly attributed to diabetes each year. Both the number of cases and the prevalence of diabetes have been steadily increasing over the past few decades.

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Key facts

  • The number of people with diabetes rose from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. Prevalence has been rising more rapidly in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries.
  • Diabetes is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and lower limb amputation.
  • Between 2000 and 2016, there was a 5% increase in premature mortality from diabetes.
  • In 2019, diabetes was the ninth leading cause of death with an estimated 1.5 million deaths directly caused by diabetes.
  • A healthy diet, regular physical activity, maintaining a normal body weight and avoiding tobacco use are ways to prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes.
  • Diabetes can be treated and its consequences avoided or delayed with diet, physical activity, medication and regular screening and treatment for complications.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes (formerly called non-insulin-dependent, or adult-onset) results from the body’s ineffective use of insulin. More than 95% of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes. This type of diabetes is largely the result of excess body weight and physical inactivity.

Symptoms may be similar to those of type 1 diabetes but are often less marked. As a result, the disease may be diagnosed several years after onset, after complications have already arisen.

Until recently, this type of diabetes was seen only in adults but it is now also occurring increasingly frequently in children.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes (previously known as insulin-dependent, juvenile or childhood-onset) is characterized by deficient insulin production and requires daily administration of insulin. In 2017 there were 9 million people with type 1 diabetes; the majority of them live in high-income countries. Neither its cause nor the means to prevent it are known.

Symptoms include excessive excretion of urine (polyuria), thirst (polydipsia), constant hunger, weight loss, vision changes, and fatigue. These symptoms may occur suddenly.

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is hyperglycaemia with blood glucose values above normal but below those diagnostic of diabetes. Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy

Women with gestational diabetes are at an increased risk of complications during pregnancy and at delivery. These women and possibly their children are also at increased risk of type 2 diabetes in the future.

Gestational diabetes is diagnosed through prenatal screening, rather than through reported symptoms.

Impaired glucose tolerance and impaired fasting glycaemia

Impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) and impaired fasting glycaemia (IFG) are intermediate conditions in the transition between normality and diabetes. People with IGT or IFG are at high risk of progressing to type 2 diabetes, although this is not inevitable.

Health impact

Over time, diabetes can damage the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, and nerves.

  • Adults with diabetes have a two- to three-fold increased risk of heart attacks and strokes(1).
  • Combined with reduced blood flow, neuropathy (nerve damage) in the feet increases the chance of foot ulcers, infection and eventual need for limb amputation.
  • Diabetic retinopathy is an important cause of blindness, and occurs as a result of long-term accumulated damage to the small blood vessels in the retina. Close to 1 million people are blind due to diabetes(2).
  • Diabetes is among the leading causes of kidney failure(3).

Prevention

Simple lifestyle measures have been shown to be effective in preventing or delaying the onset of type 2 diabetes. To help prevent type 2 diabetes and its complications, people should:

  • achieve and maintain a healthy body weight;
  • be physically active – doing at least 30 minutes of regular, moderate-intensity activity on most days. More activity is required for weight control;
  • eat a healthy diet, avoiding sugar and saturated fats; and
  • avoid tobacco use – smoking increases the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Diagnosis and treatment

Early diagnosis can be accomplished through relatively inexpensive testing of blood sugar.

Treatment of diabetes involves diet and physical activity along with lowering blood glucose and the levels of other known risk factors that damage blood vessels. Tobacco use cessation is also important to avoid complications.

Interventions that are both cost-saving and feasible in low- and middle-income countries include:

  • blood glucose control, particularly in type 1 diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes require insulin, people with type 2 diabetes can be treated with oral medication, but may also require insulin;
  • blood pressure control; and
  • foot care (patient self-care by maintaining foot hygiene; wearing appropriate footwear; seeking professional care for ulcer management; and regular examination of feet by health professionals).

Other cost-saving interventions include:

  • screening and treatment for retinopathy (which causes blindness);
  • blood lipid control (to regulate cholesterol levels);
  • screening for early signs of diabetes-related kidney disease and treatment.

CC: World Health Organization

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