Diabetes is a life-threatening class of diseases in which the body fails to regulate sugar levels in the blood. It is one of the nation's - and the world's - costliest chronic illnesses. Recently, to mark the 21st Annual American Diabetes Alert Day, the Mayo Clinic, a private U.S. medical research institution, published an important new reference book on the disease.
The Mayo Clinic's Essential Diabetes Book is a comprehensive and up-to-date manual on diabetes, intended for the general public. It sets out to educate people and to explode myths - such as the one that diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar. In fact, we learn, while diabetes is associated with obesity, its root causes are varied and complex.
"Probably the No. 1 cause of diabetes becoming so common, [as well as] pre-diabetes, is definitely our lifestyle," says Dr. Maria Collazo-Clavell, the book's medical editor and a specialist in the Mayo Clinic's division of endocrinology, metabolism and diabetes.
"Most of us are heavier than we have been in the past and less active. So definitely being conscious about our eating habits, weight and activity become very important to preventing type 2 diabetes, particularly."
The new Mayo Clinic book includes sobering numbers on the scope of the disease in the United States. In addition to the 23.6 million people diagnosed with the disease - that's I in 12 Americans - another 57 million people are pre-diabetic. This condition occurs when blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but not high enough for a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. Pre-diabetes is also dangerous because long-term damage to the heart and circulatory system might already have begun to occur.
Collazo-Clavell explains that race is also a major risk factor with this disease. Blacks and Hispanics are about one-and-a-half times more likely than white Americans to develop type 2, or adult diabetes. But she notes that type 1 diabetes, better known as juvenile diabetes, is more common among white Americans than black and Hispanic Americans.
Collazo-Clavell says it can be challenging for diabetics and those at risk for the disease to eat healthful meals and exercise regularly in the midst of busy schedules. But the Mayo Clinic specialist says these are essential goals.
"Whatever physical activity someone can do, it is worth doing. What often happen is that people have so many other limitations that keep them from adhering to this perfect, beautiful 30- to 45-minute program that they are supposed to do four to five times per week. But what we learned is that short bouts of activity are just as helpful as prolonged bouts of activity."
Collazo-Clavell also cautions people with diabetes to be diligent about their management and treatment regimens, because long-term diabetes complications can be irreversible.
"It is never too late to start caring for your health and protecting your health, but the sooner somebody does it, the better a life they will lead because they will not limit their lives. They would not have the risk of having amputation. The risk of having to go on dialysis and the risk of developing blindness will be significantly lower, so they can continue to enjoy their lives."
Diabetics today can also benefit from advanced medical technologies, from insulin pumps to simple, relatively painless glucose monitoring.
With President Obama's decision to allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, Collazo-Clavell says she is optimistic about the future of managing and curing diabetes. But she says diabetics shouldn't expect any medical breakthroughs soon.
"Once you accomplish, for example, stem cells that can produce insulin and that are viable, often the application to a diverse population of patients becomes quite challenging. So I still feel that we have to focus on helping our patients manage their diabetes day in and day out and not wait for that cure that we have been waiting for for a long time."
Collazo-Clavell hopes the Mayo Clinic's new Essential Diabetes Book will be both a helpful guide for diabetics and a wake-up call to the general public about a serious and increasingly common disease.