With 14th November marking World Diabetes Day, it’s time to think a little deeper about the condition, its symptoms and how you have the power to keep it at bay.
The problem is, it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Gulf countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, are a constant feature on the top 20 lists of disease prevalence worldwide.
On average, one in five people here are now likely to contract the condition, and research trends indicate that the prevalence of diabetes in the UAE is rising at a faster rate than both the MENA region and the rest of the world.
But, here’s the thing: Diabetes – at least type 2 – is completely preventable. And if you’re already diabetic, you have the power to make changes that will reverse the condition.
With World Diabetes Day coming up on 14th November, it’s the perfect time to start having conversations about the disease and know what you can do to stop it.
Understanding the disease is important
One common point of confusion surrounding diabetes relates to its classification – it’s something that Dr Farhana bin Lootah, internal medicine consultant at Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC), wants more people to understand.
“Type 1 diabetes is autoimmune, which means that your body attacks your pancreas,” she explains. “Your pancreas produces insulin, which is the key that brings the glucose – a byproduct of digestion of carbohydrates – from the blood into the cell. If your pancreas doesn’t make insulin, then it relies on an outside source for life, which is either a pump or injections.
“Type 2 diabetes is lifestyle related,” she continues. “Around 95 percent of diabetes is type 2. That means [the patient] has insulin, but it’s not effective. This happens because they’re not exercising or eating healthily and their sugar load is high.”
Diabetes is preventable…
“This is where screening comes in; the earlier you get this, the earlier you can prevent it,” explains Dr Farhana. “If you adopt a healthy lifestyle, read food labels for hidden sugars and live more naturally, it will help.
“A soda contains seven tablespoons of sugar,” she adds. “Most people don’t know that. If a food label doesn’t make sense and you can’t read it, then don’t consume it.”
So how can you stay clear of diabetes? Implement healthy measures from the start, says Dr Anna Burattin, consultant of endocrinology and metabolic diseases at Burjeel Hospital.
“Type 2 diabetes is preventable through awareness [and] education about healthy lifestyles, such as correct diet and regular exercise,” she advises. “We [need to] guide people through early education, starting in school and involving the whole family.”
From cooking healthy meals together to staying active and supporting one another, the family unit is one of the most important non-medical tools you can have.
“Diabetes doesn’t just affect one person, it affects the whole family,” Dr Farhana agrees. “We don’t live alone, and diabetes awareness is about incorporating your family and community as a support mechanism.”
…It’s also reversible
“Some people think that if they get diabetes, it’s not reversible,” she notes. “But it’s possible – it’s about 58 percent [likely to be] reversible if detected early and you adopt a healthy lifestyle. Studies have shown that within the first two years of detection, you can control the diabetes and reverse it.
“Walking, losing that belly fat and taking more healthy measures mean that you can stay non-diabetic,” she urges. “In type 2 diabetes, a five percent body weight loss reduces the glycaemic control – how blood glucose levels are regulated – by one point. That [reduces] your cardiovascular risk factors. It’s within your hands.”
You might not have any symptoms
“The symptoms are not always so easy to detect,” warns Dr Anna. “Diabetes can be asymptomatic for a long time until the hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar) becomes severe or some complications appear. The most common symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes are weight loss, dehydration, feeling thirsty and frequent urination.”
For Dr Farhana, the main problem is that people often wait for symptoms before seeking treatment or making lifestyle changes: “People think that if they don’t have symptoms, they don’t have diabetes. That’s scary – why should we wait for symptoms? Fifty percent of adults with diabetes don’t get symptoms, and of that 50 percent that do, it’s only when their blood sugar goes really high.”
Some conditions are a predisposing factor
Unfortunately, when diabetes shows up to the party, it often brings a few unwanted guests. Obesity, high blood pressure and cardiovascular issues might also be present too, as well as what’s already in your DNA.
“There are a lot of environmental factors that affect both our genes and lifestyle,” Dr Farhana points out. “Some of these are choices – you need to be a conscious person when you eat and exercise.
“If a family member has type 2 diabetes, that’s a risk,” she adds. “If you’re overweight or don’t exercise, that’s a risk. Certain genes also have more predispositions, including Asian and Arab. These are the red flags and this is where we’d advise patients to get tested.”
But you can outsmart your genetic legacy, says Dr Anna – all you need is some diligence.
“It is more likely that you’ll develop diabetes if some members of the family are affected, but this is not mandatory,” she explains. “Diabetes can develop in a person without family history as well – even in families with many diabetic members, there are healthy people. This is because diabetes is a multifactorial disease in which lifestyle plays a big role.”
Diabetes doesn’t just affect old people
“We know that diabetes affects people of all ages,” notes Dr Anna. “Type 1 diabetes is more common in the paediatric age [range] and in the young, but it can also occur in adults. Type 2 diabetes is more likely to occur in the older population, but in the last few decades, it’s [become] common even in young adults and can develop in childhood.”
Hold on – does that mean that more children have diabetes?
“We’re not seeing more children get diabetes, we’re just detecting more,” emphasises Dr Farhana. “In the UAE, parents are coming in more alert. The key thing is noticing symptoms in your children. If you see they’re getting tired, urinating a lot, or getting up at night, you need to check their sugar levels.”
How can you keep diabetes at bay?
• Get moving: Losing excess body fat helps your body better control your blood sugar, and reduces your risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular conditions.
• Eat well: Enjoy a balanced diet that’s full of good quality protein, fruit and vegetables and not too many starchy white carbs. Eat treats in moderation and reduce your sugar intake overall.
• Know your risks: Your DNA might have a whole host of predisposing factors, but you can outsmart your genetics by leading a healthy lifestyle.
• Get tested: Whether you have symptoms or not, getting a screening with your regular check-up could help you take action before damage is done.
Walks of life
On 16th November, put your best foot forward for diabetes awareness with Walk 2018. This annual event, hosted by ILCDC, gathers the community together for an easy stroll around Yas Marina Circuit with entertainment, craft activities and games to get you thinking more deeply about a healthy lifestyle. AED 10. Yas Island. From 2pm. Visit: icldc.ae
WORDS Camille Hogg