Diabetes & Its Long-Term Implications
Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure worldwide. Yet, over 60% of adults in Africa who have diabetes do not know they have it — the highest percentage of undiagnosed diabetes in the world. The International Diabetes Federation estimates that about 19.4 million adults in Africa are currently living with diabetes, and an additional 45 million are considered at “high risk” of developing diabetes.
Unfortunately, the numbers are expected to rise in the coming years — with about 29 million Africans projected to be living with diabetes by 2030. In addition to the lives that will be prematurely lost due to this disease, the costs will also be astronomical — $100-130 billion will be spent by Africans on diabetes-related healthcare between today and 2030. Therefore, it is vital that you understand the disease and its implications, so you can take better care of yourself and your family.
How does diabetes occur?
Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by excess amounts of glucose in the blood. When we eat, carbohydrates are broken down to glucose. Glucose is needed in the body for energy. An enzyme called insulin is made in the pancreas (the pancreas is a long, flat gland that lies behind the stomach – it produces enzymes that are released into the small intestine to help with digestion). As we eat, the amount of glucose in the bloodstream increases, so the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin aids in the movement of glucose from the bloodstream into the cells where it can be used as energy.
Diabetes occurs when glucose is not effectively moved from the blood into the cell, leading to high blood glucose (aka high blood sugar). This can happen for 3 reasons, as shown in the graphic below.
Signs & symptoms of diabetes
Diabetes belongs to a group of diseases called non-communicable diseases (NCDs). These diseases are also called “silent killers”, because of the significant toll they have on an individual’s health over a long period of time, and the fact that many people with such diseases do not notice significant signs/symptoms until it is well advanced. The symptoms of diabetes (especially in the early stages) are often non-specific and difficult to distinguish from our body’s regular reactions to the stresses of life. For example, many patients during the diagnosis process would say, “I’ve noticed I’m always tired lately, but I think that’s because I have been working extra hard”. This is why it is important to be vigilant about diabetes, and attend your routine screening and family doctor appointments dutifully. The most common signs & symptoms of diabetes are shown in the graphic below.
If you or a loved one is experiencing similar symptoms, please set up an appointment with a medical doctor immediately. The doctor will order simple blood and urine tests to confirm (or rule out) the diagnosis of diabetes.
Management of Diabetes
As with all non-communicable diseases, there is no magic pill to “cure” diabetes; rather, it is a disease that must be carefully “managed” for the rest of one’s life.
The cornerstone of diabetes management is adopting a healthy lifestyle. Type 2 diabetes has a very strong correlation with weight. Therefore, healthy (supervised) weight loss, daily exercise, a balanced diet and regular monitoring of blood glucose level are often first steps to managing diabetes. Daily medication (typically, metformin as a first option) is also an important part of the management. However, it is extremely important to use diabetes medication only with the express instruction & routine follow-up of a medical doctor. If you are diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor will create a specific holistic plan for you.
Long-term implications of diabetes
Long-term untreated diabetes significantly affects every organ-system in the body — the brain (stroke), heart (heart attack), kidneys (kidney failure), eyes (glaucoma, cataracts, and retinopathy), etc. This is why diabetes has the greatest cost to healthcare systems all over the world — estimated at $1 trillion annually. Unfortunately, many people with diabetes are not aware of the long-term implications of their illness, and the incentive structures in most healthcare systems do not prioritize preventive medicine. As a result, the incidence of diabetes complications is expected to continue rising dramatically — particularly in Africa where rapid urbanization is causing a drastic change in the lifestyle of multitudes. The graphic below highlights the long-term implications of diabetes, and further emphasizes the importance of early diagnosis and proper long-term management (through lifestyle changes and medications, if needed) of the disease.
Thank you for reading this article. Please, remember to reach out to a doctor if you have any of the symptoms described above. We will be happy to answer any questions you have on this topic — you may ask your questions in the comments section or send us an email.