Suddenly everyone’s talking about diabetes. In short, it’s a condition which strikes when your pancreas produces too little insulin – or none at all – and that stops your body controlling your blood sugar levels properly. And when those levels are too high for too long, the result can be devastating – blindness, amputations and heart disease to name but three.
It’s making headlines now because of the massive rise in new cases – around 700 people are diagnosed with diabetes every day in the UK, that’s one every two minutes. This number of people has nearly trebled from 1.4 million to 3.5 million over the past 20 years (thought to be largely due to soaring rates of obesity). The NHS spends almost 10% of its entire budget treating its complications, which could often have been prevented.
There are two types of diabetes. Around 10% of people with diabetes have Type 1, which usually starts in childhood and occurs when the body’s own immune system attacks and kills the person’s insulin-producing cells. No cells means no insulin and so the person needs to inject insulin several times every day or their blood sugar level would rise until they became very ill.
People with Type 2 diabetes (the other 90%) don’t produce enough insulin. The causes are complex but being overweight does increase your risk of developing it. Some consider Type 2 to be the less serious form of the disease – but that’s not really the case. Five-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1997. He says Type 2 can be more serious ‘because it develops slowly and people are often not diagnosed until they have complications’.
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Sir Steve is clearly one of the 10% of people with Type 2 in whom obesity did not play a part. But we know there’s a huge link to being overweight – although over 60 different genes have also been found to influence risk. As Steve says, symptoms – such as lethargy, excess thirst and increasingly frequent urination – come on so gradually that it’s easy to ignore them.
Type 1 diabetes may give the impression of being more serious because of the speed with which the same symptoms show up – and, as an autoimmune disease (meaning the body is attacking itself), there is no cure and you cannot prevent it. ‘But all diabetes is equally serious if it’s not properly managed,’ says Natasha Marsland, senior clinical advisor at Diabetes UK. There are 20 diabetes-related amputations every day in England alone.Once diagnosed with Type 1, you will have to inject insulin for life. But there are things you can do to help yourself – as comedian Ed Gamble (who has Type 1) discovered. He admits it was vanity rather than health that drove him to take control of his weight in the first place, but the positive effects on his sugar levels are what now motivates him to keep up the healthy lifestyle.
HEALTHY = HAPPY
To his chagrin, he has even become quite evangelical about eating green vegetables.‘I would utterly hate me if I was reading this,’ he says. ‘When I do experiment with an unhealthy lifestyle – at Christmas – it doesn’t make for pretty blood sugar readings. And when my blood sugar is too high it has a direct affect on my mood, productivity and general wellbeing. Now one of my most positive realisations is that being healthy can actually make me feel quite happy. Before, my happiness used to be mainly focused on food and alcohol.’
REMISSION, NOT REVERSAL
Actor Brian Cox, 70, diagnosed with Type 2 in 1998 aged 52, has also seen the benefits of a healthier lifestyle. He admits he was clueless about what to do at first but, he says, ‘I got good advice and have now built a better diet and more physical activity into my daily routine’.
Doing these things can have such a big impact on Type 2 that your blood sugar levels can even return to normal, with normal insulin production too. People are understandably euphoric when this happens. But Diabetes UK is keen to talk about this as a remission rather than reversal of the disease. ‘The fact is that, if you resume your old lifestyle, there’s a strong chance the diabetes will return,’ says Natasha.
‘On top of the millions who already have diabetes, nearly 12 million more are at increased risk of developing Type 2, so we recommend everyone – whether or not they have diabetes – follows a healthy diet that’s low in sugar, saturated fat and salt, and rich in wholegrains, fruit and vegetables.
‘Exercise is also important to help to manage your blood sugar levels, particularly in people with Type 2 diabetes.
‘Just 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity a week such as brisk walking can make a big difference – try to do this as five bite sized chunks of 30 minutes in a week,’ she says.
‘We know exercise can help manage blood sugar, as it reduces insulin resistance. And, it also helps both with weight loss and keeping off any weight you’ve already lost.’
1. THIRST AID
Feeling excessively thirsty, needing the loo more often, having blurred vision and being tired a lot of the time are classic symptoms of diabetes.
With Type 1 they come on rapidly, but with Type 2 they are much slower and can often be missed.
2. Measure up
Being overweight and having a waist measurement of 80cm or more if you’re a woman, or 94cm if you’re a man (90cm if you’re South Asian) puts you at increased risk. ‘Your waist measurement is a good indication of the visceral fat in your abdomen,’ says Natasha Marsland of Diabetes UK.
‘This secretes hormones that increase insulin resistance which is linked to Type 2 diabetes.’
3. Get wise
Age, family history and ethnicity all influence your risk. For example, if you’re black or South Asian, you’re two to four times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.
4. Get tested
If you are at increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes or you are over 40, ask your GP for a blood test.
Find out more at diabetes.org.uk/risk
Celebs living with Diabetes
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