MHLbSo just what exactly should you be aware of?

National Diabetes Awareness Month was initiated to increase our understanding of diabetes and its consequences, its management, its risk and – for type 2 diabetes – its prevention. Like most people who have read, heard, seen or otherwise been exposed to information regarding what some health professionals are calling a national epidemic, you may be wondering why we need to raise our awareness about a disease that has already received so much attention.

diabetesIf that's the case, consider this:

  • More than 25 million people in the U.S. are currently living with diabetes and that number is expected to grow.
  • Add to those numbers the 79 million people who, according to the American Diabetes Association, have pre-diabetes and are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes (the most common form).
  • Along with those numbers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that approximately seven million people in this country have undiagnosed diabetes.

That gives us an idea of scope.

Regarding health issues this large segment of our population faces, it's important to keep in mind that diabetes is an insidious disease process that can cause severe visual impairments, limit a person's ability to walk and can cause a person to lapse into a coma. And that's just the beginning.

Type 2 diabetes is also strongly associated with a significantly higher risk for heart attack and stroke, kidney failure and amputations – about half of which are related to diabetes.

The point is, we all know something, in varying degrees, about diabetes, but given the effect it has on individuals, families and our public health, awareness of diabetes is modest at best when compared to its overall negative impact. So what can you do?

When it comes to diabetes, know where you stand.

If you have not been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the single most important thing you can do is to know whether or not you have it. The place to begin is with symptoms. For example, if you experience severe increased thirst, frequent urination, unexplained weight loss, increased hunger or tingling in your hands or feet you should talk to your doctor about a screening. For millions of people, however, there may be no warning signs.

Because type 2 diabetes may be asymptomatic, it's important to also know the risk factors. One of the most important is genetics. If you have a family history of diabetes – a mother, father, brother or sister – you are at greater risk.

Other risk factors include:

  • Overweight – generally a body mass index (BMI) over 25
  • Older than 45 – type 2 diabetes risk increases as you age
  • Race and ethnic background – the disease risk is higher for Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans and Asians
  • Hypertension – high blood pressure
  • A history of gestational diabetes

A person with some or all of the above listed risk factors may never develop type 2 diabetes. The latest medical findings show, however, that the chances of getting the disease increase with the more health risk factors you have.

And equally important, know what you can do.

DiabetesThere are some risk factors that you can't control. But fortunately you are in control to a higher degree than you might imagine. A large recent study carried out by the National Institutes of Health identified five key lifestyle changes that reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes. Interestingly enough, making just one of these changes can cut your chances of developing the disease by approximately one-third while making all five behavioral changes may reduce risk by up to 80% -- even for people with a family history. Take a look:

  • Lose weight because the more fatty tissue you have, the more difficult it is for your body to make and use insulin efficiently. And of course, every pound you lose benefits your health in other ways, too.
  • Exercise more to lose weight (see above lifestyle change), lower your blood sugar and boost insulin sensitivity. Try for 20 minutes a day and include both aerobic and resistance exercises.
  • Get more fiber and whole grains into your diet (though fewer grains overall) since both help improve blood sugar levels and reduce risk – and cut back (way back) on snacks and sweets.
  • For a lot more reasons than diabetes, don't smoke. Studies show that people who smoke one pack of cigarettes a day double their risk of developing type 2 diabetes when compared with non-smokers.
  • Stick to no more than one drink a day if you're a woman and two max if you're a man. Additional amounts of alcohol can cause chronic inflammation of the pancreas which impairs its ability to secrete insulin.

November is Diabetes Awareness Month, but you should keep these risk factors and risk-reducing behaviors in mind every day. And even if you already have all the "awareness" you think you need... share the information with people around you.