The World Health Organization estimates that 346 million people globally suffer from diabetes. Most of them live in low- and middle-income countries. The WHO projects that if current trends continue, deaths from the disease could double by 2030, and health experts warn it could become a global epidemic, with significant health and economic consequences.
Dr. Sue Kirkman is the acting chief medical officer for the American Diabetes Association. She said millions of people live with undiagnosed type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease.
“We tend to think of epidemics as infectious diseases, but we are now having an epidemic of diabetes worldwide,” she said. “In the U.S., at least one in four people with type 2 diabetes are undiagnosed. We don’t really know worldwide, but presumably is probably higher in many countries.”
Type 2 diabetes impairs the body's ability to use insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. The disease can damage the heart, eyes, kidneys and nerves.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the cost of diabetes in the United States is about $174 billion per year, mostly for treatment of complications and disabilities.
Dr. Ann Albright, who heads the CDC's Diabetes Division, said, “The projections for diabetes today in the U.S.: one in 10 has diabetes; when we look out to 2050 that may become as high as one in three that may have diabetes.”
Albright said more than 50 million people in India have diabetes, followed by 40 million in China, and about 26 million in the U.S. Nearly 90 percent of these cases are type 2 diabetes, and are closely related to obesity, aging, and racial and ethnic factors.
“It’s important to point out that those of Asian descent, southeast Asian in particular, develop diabetes at a lower body weight,” she noted.
Scientists say obesity and lack of exercise contribute to the increased number of cases, as do earlier diagnosis and people living longer.
Dr. Myrlene Staten, a senior adviser for the Diabetes Research Division at the National Institutes of Health, said, “One of the big concerns of diabetes today is that type 2 diabetes did not occur in children 30 years ago, or it was rarely seen. But as children in America have become heavier, we are now starting to recognize type 2 diabetes in children, especially in children of minority populations, largely African-American and Hispanic.”
There is no known cure for diabetes, but doctors say making lifestyle changes - such as maintaining a healthy weight by eating right and exercising - is the best way to treat and prevent it.