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There’s a diabetes epidemic in America. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), an estimated 18 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes while another 7 million are unaware they have the disease.

According to Dr. Robert Dickinson, Managing Physician of the Executive Health Program at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic, nearly 90 percent of the people diagnosed with diabetes have type 2 diabetes, which develops when the body doesn’t make enough insulin, doesn’t efficiently use the insulin it makes, or both. The remaining 10 percent have type 1 diabetes, a more severe form of the disease that is more common in children than in adults.

“Type 2 diabetics are characterized as insulin resistant, and type 1 diabetics produce no insulin and must take insulin injections,” Dr. Dickinson says. “Diabetes is one of the leading causes of heart attacks, strokes, amputations and loss of eyesight.”

In the past, type 2 diabetes was mostly an adult disease, but in recent years there has been an increase in type 2 diabetes among children. Dr. James Hoyle, Pediatrician and Medical Director for Clinical Operations at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic, says the problem is twofold: “Children today are more sedentary than past generations, and children and adolescents in America have diets filled with fast foods and other high calorie meals,” the doctor explained.

Being Overweight Increases the Risk

Dr. Dickinson says that nearly 70 to 90 percent of the people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are overweight, and he recommends a low-carbohydrate, low-fat diet along with exercise. Research from the ADA reveals that the rate of type 2 diabetes is higher among certain ethnic groups including, African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Dr. Olethia Chisolm,​ Internal Medicine at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic, says diabetes is higher in some ethnic groups due to diet. “You have a higher prevalence of obesity among Hispanic Americans, Latin Americans and African Americans, and there also may be some genetic pre-determinants,” she says.

Diabetes and Pregnancy

Gestational diabetes, which occurs during pregnancy, affects 45 percent of all pregnant women. About 135,000 cases of gestational diabetes are reported each year in the United States, and Dr. Chisolm notes that women who had diabetes during pregnancy are more likely to develop diabetes type 2 later in life – especially if they are overweight and sedentary. “One of the best ways to reduce your risk is to stay active,” the doctor explained.

Controlling Diabetes: Exercise and Diet Are the Keys

Exercise and diet are the keys to controlling diabetes. Although diabetes can be life threatening, being diagnosed with the disease does not have to be a death sentence. “A well controlled diabetic should live a normal life,” Dr. Hoyle says.

Exercise seems to be an essential element in fighting the disease. About children with type 1 diabetes Dr. Hoyle says, “we like them to be more athletic because muscle activity helps to control their sugar levels.”

Children with type 1 diabetes bear many of the same responsibilities as adults with type 1 diabetes. “They are kids, and they have the challenges of a chronic illness,” Dr. Hoyle says. “Most kids [with type 1 diabetes] give themselves their own shots, check their own sugar levels and keep their own dietary diaries.”

Genetics and Family History Both Play a Role

Is diabetes a matter of genetics or heredity? Many doctors believe a person is more likely to get diabetes if one or both parents have diabetes, but this is not an absolute. “There may be a family history of diabetes, but everyone in a particular family may not get diabetes,” Dr. Chisolm says. While experts believe type 2 diabetes is a combination of factors, Dr. Hoyle says, “Type 1 diabetes is very likely a complex genetic disease.”

Diabetes can be managed and those diagnosed with it can live a normal life. November is American Diabetes Month and in honor of your health, you should maintain a low-carbohydrate, low-fat diet with regular exercise. If you experience symptoms of diabetes - such as excessive thirst, increased urination, fatigue, blurred vision or unexplained weight loss - you should discuss them with your physician and request a blood sugar test.

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