Type 2 Diabetes: Preventing the Silent Disease
Type 2 diabetes is a sneaky disease. Symptoms can be so mild or nonexistent that many people don’t know they have it until they get a blood sugar test as part of a routine checkup. If left uncontrolled, this “silent disease” can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, blindness, and more.
“Diet and exercise changes are the best ways to prevent type 2 diabetes,” says Courtney Fay, D.O., physician and Medical Director at Crozer Medical Associates. “Or, if you already have it, healthy habits plus medication and following a doctor’s recommendations tailored to your situation can get your blood sugar under control to keep you healthy for the long term.”
What is Type 2 Diabetes?
Our energy comes from the sugars we get from what we eat or drink. Type 2 diabetes occurs when your blood sugar (or blood glucose) levels aren’t controlled properly by insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. Either the pancreas isn’t producing enough insulin, or the body isn’t using the hormone efficiently enough.
Another kind of diabetes is type 1. This disease, which affects 2 to 4 million people in the U.S., can occur suddenly, possibly as the result of an infection. Blood glucose levels rise, unchecked. Type 1 diabetes mostly occurs in children and young adults and less frequently in older people. It also isn’t something you can prevent.
In comparison, far more people — about 30 to 32 million Americans — have type 2 diabetes. While most cases occur over age 40, the disease has begun affecting younger people, including teens and adolescents.
In addition, 88 million adults have prediabetes, which means high blood sugar levels haven’t reached the damaging levels seen in type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, 84 percent of people don’t know they have prediabetes. And, it can lead to type 2 diabetes if left unchecked.
“Over time, uncontrolled type 2 diabetes can affect every organ in your body,” notes Rahul Patel, D.O., physician at Crozer Medical Associates and associate program director of Internal Medicine at Crozer Health. “Once you know that you are at risk of type 2 diabetes, you can use that knowledge to prevent it.”
People are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes if they:
- Are overweight or obese
- Are over age 45
- Have a family history of diabetes
- Have high blood pressure
- Have a low level of HDL (“good”) cholesterol or a high level of triglycerides
- Have a history of heart disease or stroke
- Have depression
- Are not physically active
- Are African American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander
- Have a history of gestational diabetes or gave birth to a baby weighing 9 pounds or more
“Type 2 diabetes is often called a silent disease because most people won’t experience any symptoms,” says Dr. Patel. “Or, symptoms are mild and can be confused with signs of aging. The only way to truly find out about type 2 diabetes is through a blood test that measures the sugar level in the blood. This can be part of your annual health screening.”
Symptoms, if present, may include:
- Frequent infections that do not heal easily
- Unusual thirst
- Frequent urination
- Weight loss despite extreme hunger
- Blurred vision
- Nausea and vomiting
- Extreme weakness and fatigue
- Irritability and mood changes
- Dry, itchy skin
- Tingling or loss of feeling in the hands or feet
Preventing Type 2 Diabetes
Want to take control? Talk with your primary care physician about the steps you should start taking, based on your individual situation.
Here are a few ideas to kick off your healthier habits:
- Reduce your weight — Losing 5 to 7 percent of your starting weight and keeping it off can prevent or even delay diabetes. Follow a doctor-approved diet and exercise plan that considers your health and other factors.
- Be more active — Aim to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week. Too busy to exercise? Consider doing shorter “exercise breaks” several times a day to reach the goal. Get your heart pumping by walking fast, dancing, doing jumping jacks, lifting weights, or using exercise bands.
- Eat healthier foods — Reduce your overall calorie intake by eating smaller portions, choosing low-fat options, and drinking water instead of sweetened beverages. Get creative with spices and recipes from different countries to keep your tastebuds happy.
“In addition to lifestyle changes, there are effective medications that can help keep your blood sugar levels stable,” notes Dr. Fay. “If your tests show you have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, your primary care physician can refer you to an endocrinologist, who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases involving the pancreas. They give you a plan to maintain a healthy body and ease your mind.”
Dr. Patel agrees: “When it comes to a preventable disease like type 2 diabetes, knowledge and lifestyle changes give you the power to take charge of your health.”