The Doctor's notebook | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - February 2007

The Doctor's notebook

What is diabetes? Diabetes is a condition in which the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood is too high because the body cannot use it properly. Glucose enters the blood through the digestion of starchy and sweet foods, and from the liver, which produces glucose.

Our pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that helps glucose to enter the cells where it is used as fuel by the body. In people with diabetes this doesn’t happen properly, and treatment is needed.

There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 develops if the body cannot produce sufficient, if any, insulin and usually appears before the age of 40. Type 2 diabetes is much more common and occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or when the insulin produced does not do its job.

This can be linked with being overweight. Type 2 diabetes usually appears in people over 40, though in people of Asian and African-Caribbean origin it can be earlier.

In 2005, the number of people in the UK diagnosed with diabetes passed the two million mark, and there are an estimated 750,000 undiagnosed cases.

What are the symptoms? The main symptoms are feeling thirsty, producing excessive amounts of urine, tiredness, weight loss and some people experience blurred vision. These symptoms can develop quite rapidly for Type 1 sufferers, but Type 2 symptoms take longer to appear and can go almost unnoticed, which is why there are so many undiagnosed diabetics out there.

How is diabetes treated? Diabetes cannot be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled. It is important to diagnose diabetes as early as possible, and if you have the symptoms you should see your GP.

Badly managed diabetes can lead to blood glucose levels becoming too high or too low. If levels become too high the result can be a hyperglycaemic attack, which can, in some cases, lead to unconsciousness and even death. Type 1 diabetes patients are called ‘insulin dependent’ and need to take regular insulin injections to keep their glucose levels normal; injections which can be taken using a syringe, injection pen or small insulin pump.

Type 2 diabetes can usually be controlled through dietary changes and losing weight, though some people with Type 2 do need to take tablets or insulin injections as well as living a healthier lifestyle.

Gestational diabetes Between 24 and 28 weeks into pregnancy most women have a blood sugar test for gestational diabetes. The hormonal changes during pregnancy, along with the demands of a growing baby, may prevent a pregnant woman’s body from producing as much insulin as she needs. Gestational diabetes affects around four per cent of pregnant women, but usually disappears after the baby is born.

Lifestyle changes People with diabetes should monitor their blood pressure and cholesterol to prevent associated problems such as heart disease and poor circulation. Maintaining a sensible weight, eating a healthy diet and stopping smoking all help prevent the complications of diabetes.

Blood flow problems caused by diabetes can lead to nerve damage in the hands and feet and about 1 in 6 people with diabetes get foot ulcers, which can cause serious infection.Turn to page 12 to read about Action Medical Research’s work in this area.

Latest research The rise in life expectancy and the prevalence of diabetes are linked. In the elderly population, Type 2 diabetes is a growing problem. Older people may not exhibit the classic symptoms and agerelated changes can mean that some symptoms are harder to spot.

Various studies are currently being done worldwide, many looking at juvenile diabetes and its management. A startling fact is that more children are now being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which could be linked to lifestyle factors such as diet and weight gain. TL

For information and advice on a wide range of health topics, visit Dr Steele’s website

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