Fight it with exercise

DIABETES DAY SPECIAL

Despite wide media coverage about its prevalence and prevention, the diabetes epidemic has reached a staggering level and now affects 346 million people worldwide.

A study carried out by the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2004 attributed the rising figures to population growth, ageing, urbanisation and the pervasiveness of obesity and physical inactivity.

So what does this bode for society, today? Moreover, has anything been done to revert the effects of this rising epidemic?

Diabetes results when the pancreas, one of the body’s key digestive organs, does not produce the hormone insulin. Insulin is responsible for converting the glucose we ingest into its storable form, glycogen.

Therefore,  in its absence, one suffers from hyperglycemia, or raised blood sugar. If not controlled, hyperglycemia can lead to irreversible damage of many of the body’s systems, especially affecting the nerves and blood vessels.

Type II diabetes usually manifests itself in adulthood and has been linked to obesity, physical inactivity, unhealthy diets, family history and ethnicity. It is the most prevalent form of diabetes. Other forms of diabetes include Type I diabetes, gestational diabetes, pancreatitis and diabetes that results from exposure to certain drugs and viruses. However, Type II diabetes is easily manageable through weight loss and lifestyle changes.

There is no existing cure for diabetes, but there is effective treatment that enables people to lead healthy lifestyles and reduce the risk of disease complications. The International Diabetes Federation suggests the following as a means keep the disease under control:

*At least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day such as brisk walking, swimming, cycling and dancing.
*Weight loss to improve insulin resistance, blood glucose and blood pressure
*Avoid foods rich in sugars and saturated fats and limit the consumption of alcohol
*Avoid tobacco as it has been linked to several complications in individuals afflicted with diabetes
*Regular monitoring of the disease by frequent check-ups with the doctor. This involves foot, eye, blood pressure and blood glucose check-ups. It is also suggested that one’s risk be assessed for kidney and cardiovascular disease.

The organisation also advocates that diabetics opt for more “diabetes-friendly” foods such as diabetic chocolate (that uses a sugar substitute), lean meats, low fat or trans-fat –free foods and soy and vegetable-based meat substitutes. This enables individuals to maintain a healthy lifestyle despite having diabetes.

There has also been an increased movement to list the nutrients present in different foods, making it easier for people to determine the nature and content of the nutrients they are ingesting on a daily basis.

There has been considerable research dedicated to learning more about and finding a cure for diabetes. Just recently, onemillion USD was allocated to create a Research Chair in Canada dedicated solely to diabetes. This accompanied a $375,000 grant to fund upcoming diabetes research.

Furthermore, Australian scientists claim to have discovered a single gene that links a high fat diet to developing diabetes. The organisation, Research Australia, details that this gene, called Id1, is expected to shorten the path towards finding a potential cure for the disease. Dr Ross Laybutt from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research has found that the gene is “switched on when people consume high fat diets” and believes that blocking this gene will promote the pancreatic cells to produce insulin. All these findings provide a new hope for those that suffer from Type II diabetes.

It is interesting to note however, that there is considerable evidence that achieving a healthy body weight and being physically active can significantly decrease the contraction of Type II diabetes. It is therefore of utmost importance that people and governments take swift action to control this ever-growing problem.

The International Diabetes Federation suggests that treating diabetes already costs about $465 billion dollars a year and that investing in its prevention can extensively bring down this number.

In fact, the journal Health Affairs featured a shocking study concerning Americans between the ages 60 and 65 with pre-diabetes (where one has high blood sugar but no diabetes) that were enrolled in weight loss programmes.

The president of the International Diabetes Federation, Jean Claude Mbanya,  said that “the clock is ticking for the world’s leaders” and that action will be expected from the UN meeting that took place in September, 2011.

The news service IRIN confirms that, at the UN meeting, 20 nations reaffirmed their commitment to increasing access to more nutritious foods and improving financial accountability to strengthen their nutritional commitments.  Needless to say, achieving the goal of overcoming the massive cost towards spending on diabetes requires “a comprehensive, coordinated, patient-centered approach on the part of the healthcare system”, as the WHO concedes.

There is no “magic bullet” for the treatment of diabetes, but because it is a disease that can be controlled by making lifestyle changes, governments need to invest more time, money and energy in advocating healthy eating and exercise.

Spending a little now can lead to long-term savings. Therefore, the current economic struggle that governments face in balancing budgets should not discourage them from reallocating spending towards controllable diseases such as this one.

Individuals need to be encouraged to lead healthy lives because it unfortunately does not come naturally to the good majority of us! So get off that couch and get on a treadmill. Diabetes can be pushed off the epidemic list, after all.

(The author is health sciences research scholar from Mc Master University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)

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