WHO: Healthy Lifestyles Can Prevent Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes comprises 90 percent of people with diabetes around the world, and is largely the result of excess body weight and physical inactivity.

More than 346 million people worldwide have diabetes, and more than 80 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar. Hyperglycaemia, or raised blood sugar, is a common effect of uncontrolled diabetes and over time leads to serious damage to many of the body's systems, especially the nerves and blood vessels.

Type 1 diabetes (previously known as insulin-dependent, juvenile, or childhood-onset) is characterized by deficient insulin production and requires daily administration of insulin. The cause of type 1 diabetes is not known and it is not preventable with current knowledge.

Symptoms include excessive excretion of urine (polyuria), thirst (polydipsia), constant hunger, weight loss, vision changes, and fatigue. These symptoms may occur suddenly.

Type 2 diabetes (formerly called non-insulin-dependent or adult-onset) results from the body’s ineffective use of insulin. Type 2 diabetes comprises 90 percent of people with diabetes around the world, and is largely the result of excess body weight and physical inactivity.

Symptoms may be similar to those of Type 1 diabetes, but are often less marked. As a result, the disease may be diagnosed several years after onset, once complications have already arisen.

Until recently, this type of diabetes was seen only in adults but it is now also occurring in children.

Over time, diabetes can damage the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, and nerves.

  • Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Fifty percent of people with diabetes die of cardiovascular disease (primarily heart disease and stroke).
  • Combined with reduced blood flow, neuropathy in the feet increases the chance of foot ulcers and eventual limb amputation.
  • Diabetic retinopathy is an important cause of blindness, and occurs as a result of long-term accumulated damage to the small blood vessels in the retina. After 15 years of diabetes, approximately 2 percent of people become blind, and about 10 percent develop severe visual impairment.
  • Diabetes is among the leading causes of kidney failure. Ten to 20 percent of people with diabetes die of kidney failure.
  • Diabetic neuropathy is damage to the nerves as a result of diabetes, and affects up to 50 percent of people with diabetes. Although many different problems can occur as a result of diabetic neuropathy, common symptoms are tingling, pain, numbness, or weakness in the feet and hands.
  • The overall risk of dying among people with diabetes is at least double the risk of their peers without diabetes.

Diabetes and its complications have a significant economic impact on individuals, families, health systems, and countries, WHO says. For example, WHO estimates that in the period 2006-2015, China will lose $558 billion in foregone national income due to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes alone.

Simple lifestyle measures have been shown to be effective in preventing or delaying the onset of type 2 diabetes. To help prevent type 2 diabetes and its complications, people should:

  • achieve and maintain healthy body weight;

  • be physically active—at least 30 minutes of regular, moderate-intensity activity on most days. More activity is required for weight control;
  • eat a healthy diet of between three and five servings of fruit and vegetables a day and reduce sugar and saturated fats intake;
  • avoid tobacco use—smoking increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Early diagnosis can be accomplished through relatively inexpensive blood testing.

Treatment of diabetes involves lowering blood glucose and the levels of other known risk factors that damage blood vessels. Tobacco use cessation is also important to avoid complications.

Other cost-saving interventions include:

  • screening and treatment for retinopathy (which causes blindness);
  • blood lipid control (to regulate cholesterol levels);
  • screening for early signs of diabetes-related kidney disease.

Click here to read WHO’s entire fact sheet on diabetes.

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