Once a disease of the elderly, diabetes now affects black children too.
African-Americans in general are two times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than whites. They also die from it twice as often. Black women are most affected — one in every five black women age 55 and over has diabetes.
Black diabetics are more likely to suffer the common complications such as blindness, heart disease, end-stage kidney disease and amputations. Many are unaware they have diabetes until these complications occur.
And, now the children are involved.
Type 2 diabetes or “adult diabetes” is heavily correlated with obesity. With increasing rates of obesity among black children — one in four black girls and one in five black boys are overweight — there has also been an estimated 33 percent increase in the cases of children with type 2 diabetes.
HOW IT KILLS
Diabetes, uncontrolled, can damage most major organs from the high levels of sugar circulating in the blood.
Glucose, or blood sugar, is the main source of energy for the body, especially muscles. Having diabetes affects the way the body processes glucose.
Glucose comes from two places: eating food or the liver. However, glucose cannot get absorbed into the body without being accompanied by insulin. They go hand-in-hand. When your blood sugar goes up, more insulin is made by the pancreas.
Type 1 diabetes is genetic and usually presents at childhood or adolescence — it happens independent of weight gain. The body attacks the pancreas and no insulin can be produced. Without insulin, the sugar cannot go into the cells, so it builds up in the blood stream. Little can be done to prevent this.
Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, can occur at any age and is preventable. It usually begins as prediabetes — where glucose levels are elevated, but not enough to be classified as type 2 diabetes. In both prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, the body becomes resistant to insulin. So, even though the body continues to make it, the blood glucose stays in the blood stream.
Diabetics are more likely to develop heart disease, stroke and blindness due to blood vessels damaged by high glucose levels. These damaged vessels also lead to nerve damage causing tingling or numbness of the feet, and difficulty eating due to damaged nerves going to the stomach.
The kidneys can become damaged to the point of needing dialysis and a kidney transplant. And, diabetics have difficulty fighting infection or healing — often leading to foot ulcers and infection, and in some cases, amputations. Black diabetics are almost three times more likely to suffer from lower-limb amputations.
Symptoms of undiagnosed diabetes include:
- Increased thirst
- Increased urination
- Extremely hungry or tired
- Unexplained weight loss
The concept that eating too much sugar causes diabetes is a myth. That is, unless eating too much sugar over a long period of time has led to obesity. But, with normal, functioning pancreas, enough insulin should be produced to get the glucose out of the bloodstream.
Over the last three decades, the number of people with diabetes doubled among African-Americans and more than doubled among whites. Yet, black diabetics still outnumber their white counterparts. And black women top the list.
These rates directly correlate with the increase in obesity over the past three decades as well.
HOW WE CAN OVERCOME IT
Preventing yourself from developing diabetes in the first place is the main goal. This can be done with the typical lifestyle changes — physical activity, eating a balanced diet including the appropriate number of calories.
However, if you develop diabetes or prediabetes, it is reversible. Many people make lifestyle and diet changes, including losing even a small amount of weight, and as a result can decrease or stop their medications altogether because blood sugar levels improve.
Getting screened regularly will allow for early treatment and decrease the risk of those common complications.
WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING TO KEEP US HEALTHY
Researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine’s Center for Diabetes Research are actively studying the connection between diabetes and heart disease, and data released yesterday reveals a possible test to tell which diabetes will die earlier from heart disease. More studies are needed to draw that conclusion. These same researchers are trying to find answers on diabetes specifically in the black community.
On an individual level, a network of black women nationwide are making strides to improve their health — including common ailments like diabetes and high blood pressure. They belong to a network called Black Women Do Workout. Later in the week, we will feature these women and showcase how this virtual support system helps women regain control of their health.