With diabetes becoming more common in America, identifying the symptoms of prediabetes and addressing needed lifestyle changes can produce lasting effects.

With approximately 1.9 million newly diagnosed cases in people older than 20 occurring in 2010, diabetes can officially be labeled a national epidemic. Affecting 25.8 million Americans overall, the condition is characterized by high blood glucose levels that result from the body’s inability to produce and/or use insulin. Resulting health issues such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blindness and other complications brought about by the onset of diabetes are the cost of this growing problem.

What causes diabetes

So what are the underlying causes behind the rise of this chronic condition? The reality is that this is a generation driven by unhealthy behaviors that have all been adding up to elevate overweight and obesity conditions among the population. The vast majority of new diabetes cases are now seen in people who are struggling to maintain a healthy weight. Sedentary lifestyles with too much time in front of a screen, eating habits involving too many calories in and too few being burned they’re all part of the equation, and practiced over a long period of time, they have a direct link to raising the risk for developing diabetes.

The demographics of people most at risk for diabetes matchup with those at risk for other chronic diseases. Typically, these numbers represent neighborhoods with less access to healthy, fresh food sources and opportunities to be active outdoors that create an overall unhealthy environment. In addition, a person’s age plays a very large role, as the cells that produce insulin to help our bodies use or store blood glucose don’t function quite as effectively over the years. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) reports that 11.3 percent (25.6 million total) of people age 20 years or older have diabetes, while 26.9 percent (10.9 million total) of people age 65 years or older are afflicted.

A plan for prevention

While the reasons behind why more people are developing diabetes are firmly established,it can be a sneaky disease that creeps up over time and is difficult to diagnose early on. The condition of prediabetes, in which blood sugar levels are higher than normal but are not high enough to be classified as diabetes, often exhibits no symptoms. However, it is now widely recognized as a precursor to type 2 diabetes, which is the most common form of diabetes and diagnosed more often in people who are overweight, inactive and over the age of 45. Although an estimated 79 million people have prediabetes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only 11 percent know they are affected; roughly 11 percent of all people with prediabetes convert to full-blown diabetes each year. Simply gaining a few pounds each year, getting older and becoming more sedentary can put you at risk for prediabetes.

The good news about prediabetes? It is potentially reversible.

The good news about prediabetes? It is potentially reversible, but early detection is vital to help delay the development of type 2 diabetes and the life-altering events to which it can lead. Questionnaires from the ADA and CDC can aid with initial screening, but you’ll want to contact your primary care provider to engage in one of three more definitive blood tests:

  • Hemoglobin A1c test, which draws blood to measure how much sugar is coating your red blood cells
  • Fasting plasma glucose test (FPG), which measures blood drawn after a period of fasting to measure blood sugar level
  • Oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT), which involves drinking a small amount of a high-sugar solution and monitoring how it moves through the body

If any of these tests reveal a diagnosis of prediabetes, the need for early prevention becomes even more crucial. Adopting a healthy lifestyle through changing your diet, increasing your level of physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight are all learned behaviors that can make a huge difference in improving your overall health and well-being.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) reports that 11.3 percent (25.6 million total) of people age 20 years or older have diabetes, while 26.9 percent (10.9 million total) of people age 65 years or older are afflicted.

Education and support

The CDC-led National Diabetes Prevention Program has been designed to educate participants in their own communities on how to adopt healthy eating and physical activity habits. Throughout a 12-month lifestyle change program, trained lifestyle coaches in small classroom settings promote two core goals:

  • Lose 5-7 percent of your body weight
  • Gradually increase your physical activity to 150 minutes per week

Objectives of the program were developed utilizing findings from a study led by the National Institutes of Health. The results showed that community-based weight loss programs such as those promoted by the CDC can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by up to 58 percent overall and 71 percent among adults 60 years or older. The important thing to take from these findings is that lifestyle changes of this type aren’t easy or instant; they require a permanent change in mindset, with the mental and social reinforcement of family and community building a support system to create lasting,healthy behaviors.

Go to ymca.net/diabetes for more information on the program, locations near you and tips for creating your own healthy environment.

Dr. Matt Longjohn, M.D., M.P.H. is National Health Officer at the YMCA of the USA (Y-USA), focused on promoting wellness for individuals, families and communities; reducing risk for chronic diseases; and reclaiming health for people who have an illness. He is also a faculty member at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, where he previously served as the founding executive director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC). Dr. Longjohn received his bachelors degree in biology from Kalamazoo College and his M.D. and M.P.H. from Tulane University.