Feature Article

Preventing and Managing Diabetes

Diabetes is a very serious health condition, and one that affects many people. It is likely that some of the people who you support already have diabetes, and that others are at risk for developing diabetes in the future. You can help the individuals who you support by learning about:

  • What diabetes is
  • Who is at risk for diabetes
  • The signs and symptoms of diabetes
  • How diabetes can be managed
  • How diabetes can be prevented

What is diabetes?

Our bodies convert the food that we eat into sugar that our cells use for energy. Diabetes is a health condition that causes glucose (sugar) to build up in our blood instead of being used by the cells in our bodies. For most people, the body uses a hormone called insulin to control the amount of sugar that is in the bloodstream. Diabetes occurs when the body does not make enough insulin or when the insulin does not work in the way that it should. This means that people with untreated diabetes cannot use the sugar in their bodies in the correct way, and this sugar builds up in their bloodstreams.

There are two types of diabetes. In type 1 diabetes the body does not make any insulin. In type 2 diabetes the body does not make enough insulin, or the body produces insulin, but does not use it correctly. Type 2 diabetes is much more common than type 1.

If a person has untreated diabetes, the level of sugar in his or her blood is too high. Over time, this can damage the heart, kidneys, nerves, and eyes. Diabetes can even lead to blindness or to having a foot or leg removed. Very high blood sugar can also cause loss of consciousness.

Who is at risk for developing diabetes?

Anyone can get diabetes, but the people who you support are more likely to get diabetes if they:

  • Are overweight or obese
  • Are over the age of 40
  • Have a family history of diabetes
  • Are African-American, Hispanic, or Native American

What are the signs and symptoms of diabetes?

You may be able to tell if the people who you support are developing diabetes. Common symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Feeling tired or sleeping more than usual
  • Needing to urinate more than usual
  • Hands or feet that are numb or tingling
  • Wounds that do not heal
  • Recurrent vaginal infections
  • Blurred vision
  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain

If someone you support has these symptoms, you should provide support for them to see their doctor as soon as possible. The doctor will test the amount of sugar in the individual’s blood. If their blood sugar levels are higher than normal, this may mean that the person has diabetes. It is important for people to find out if they have diabetes so that they can start managing it right away.

How can diabetes be managed?

Even though there is no cure for diabetes, there are many things that people with diabetes can do to stay healthy and live a long life. As a support provider, you can encourage people with diabetes to talk with their doctors, and help them to follow their doctors’ instructions.

The key to managing diabetes is keeping the amount of sugar in the bloodstream under control. Upon receiving a diagnosis of diabetes, the person will need to monitor their diet and blood sugar levels, and get regular exercise. They may also need to take a new medicine.

To control the level of sugar in their blood, you can help people with diabetes to:

  • Follow a special diet (ask the person’s doctor what this diet should be)
  • Choose a physical activity that they enjoy and try to exercise for 30 minutes each day
  • Test their blood sugar often using a blood glucose monitor (ask the person’s doctor what their normal blood sugar level should be)
  • Remember when and how to take their medications

In general, people with diabetes should avoid saturated fat and cholesterol and try to eat more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat milk products. Also, remind the people who you support that exercise can include things like walking, dancing, or stretching while watching TV, listening to music, or talking on the phone.

How can diabetes be prevented?

Type 2 diabetes is preventable. You can help the people who you support to prevent diabetes by encouraging them to:

  • Exercise regularly (30 minutes on most days)
  • Keep a healthy weight
  • Eat plenty of vegetables, whole grains, and nuts
  • Eat less sugary foods, fast foods, and soda

Encourage and support individuals who have questions about diabetes to talk to their doctor. A doctor can give you and the individual more information about preventing and managing diabetes.

For a simple explanation of diabetes that you can use to educate the individuals who you support see:

For more information on diabetes, check out these websites and resources:

  • Learning about Diabetes - www.learningaboutdiabetes.com
  • American Diabetes Association - www.diabetes.org
  • National Diabetes Education Program - www.ndep.nih.gov
  • California Diabetes Program - www.caldiabetes.org
    • A form on "Questions to Ask My Doctor about Diabetes" - http://www.caldiabetes.org/content_display.cfm?CategoryID=0&ContentID=298
    • A "Diabetes Health Record Card" (available in 14 languages) - http://www.caldiabetes.org/content_display.cfm?categoryID=0&ContentID=19

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