Often, patients suffer from advanced diabetes by the time Dr. Rene J. Harper
Some must take high dosages of insulin. Others suffer from mature stages of
kidney disease and other ailments.
Yet these aren’t senior citizens in their twilight years. They’re young men
and women, an unsettling fact.
“We are seeing people in their 20s and 30s with advanced stages of the
disease,” said Harper, an endocrinologist who specializes in diabetes at the
Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Health Sciences University. “People
don’t realize there are very severe complications down the road, and they
are at the point where it’s too late.”
Recently, celebrity chef Paula Deen drew ridicule with the announcement that
she has diabetes. That cast a spotlight on a chronic disease with deep roots
in the South, and particularly in Deen’s home state.
Thing is, this is a crisis practically all of us can help curb. And that fight
starts from within, personally. Eat healthy. Exercise. Do what’s right for
your body, your families. Take the lead.
In Georgia, we like all things fried and floured. Fried chicken. Fried
catfish. Country-fried steak. Tasty but fattening dishes that should be
consumed in moderation, if at all.
Moreover, we’re too inactive, which too often makes us hefty. Adults sit at
desks, type on computers, watch TV and take elevators instead of stairs. Our
children have embraced this general passivity.
Seldom do you see kids out shooting hoops or riding bikes. No wonder we have
the second highest childhood obesity rate in the country. Georgia is
participating in SHAPE — the Student Health and Physical Education Act —
which requires all students in phys ed classes to participate in a fitness
assessment. Parents and guardians receive the children’s individual results.
Perhaps this will plant healthier seeds in the minds of families that then
nurture and grow.
After all, although genetics and family medical history can be predispositions
for diabetes, one thing matters most: lifestyle, Harper said.
“I tell [patients] that I am the coach and that they are the players, and that
they should focus on their lifestyles,” he said. “What they eat is extremely
important, as well as the way that they manage their snacking habits that
have developed over the years.”
Sadly, some patients refuse to play ball.
“I see a lot of folks who let things slide, and they put the burden on the
physician to help them with pills or insulin,” he told me. “What I tell
folks is, it doesn’t mean you can’t eat fried chicken or pie, but how do you
account for it?”
Playing devil’s advocate, I suggested that socioeconomic status plays a role,
too. A low-wage earner is more likely to shell out $3 for chicken biscuits
than a vegetarian pizza.
The doctor’s response?
Buy a bag of carrots.
“People who eat at McDonald’s all the time can’t expect to be healthy,” he
said. “We live in an environment where people don’t exercise, they don’t eat
right and they are bombarded with [fast-food] commercials. What’s happening
in the Southern belt — not just Georgia, but Alabama and South Carolina — is
due to diet and lack of education.”
The truth. It hurts. We can do better.
More Facts on Diabetes
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a metabolism disorder in which blood glucose levels are above
normal. A person’s body either doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t use the
hormone as well as it should. The body needs insulin to process sugar,
starches and other foods into energy. When it doesn’t, sugar builds up in
Diabetes can cause heart disease, blindness, kidney failure and amputations.
In 2006, it was the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States, and
nationwide affects an estimated 25.8 million people. One-third of Americans
could have diabetes by 2050, according to the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention. Georgia’s diabetes rate is among the highest. In 2009, 9.7
percent of Georgians had been diagnosed with diabetes, says the CDC, an
increase from 6.1 percent a decade ago. Our state is part of the “diabetes
belt,” which includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and
Some, but not all symptoms include excessive thirst or hunger, frequent
urination, unexplained weight loss, vision changes, tingling or numbness in
the hands or feet, dry skin, sores that heal slowly, infections, nausea,
vomiting or stomach pains.
Types of diabetes
Pre-diabetes occurs when a person’s blood glucose level is higher than normal
but not high enough for a diagnosis of type II diabetes. Type 1 diabetes,
once called insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus or juvenile-onset diabetes,
accounts for nearly 5 percent of all cases. Type II diabetes, previously
called noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, or adult-onset diabetes,
accounts for 90 percent to 95 percent of all cases. Gestational diabetes is
contracted by pregnant women, notably African-Americans, Hispanic/Latinos,
American Indians and people with a family history of the disease.
For Type 1 diabetes, one must eat healthy foods, exercise and take insulin
injections. For Type II diabetes, healthy eating and physical activity are
combined with blood glucose testing and possibly oral medication or insulin.