Diabetes is the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia, affecting more than two million of us, yet many of us are unaware of the serious side effects this disease can have.
Diabetes has been called the epidemic of the 21st century and is currently the biggest health challenge facing Australia. The latest figures indicate that around 1.7 million Aussies have this condition. Of these, 1.2 million have been formally diagnosed, while around 500,000 have the disease, but are unaware.
Every five minutes, another Australian is diagnosed with diabetes. And for every person that is diagnosed, there’s usually someone else involved in support and care, meaning that diabetes affects around 2.4 million people.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a serious and complex condition, which can affect quality of life, and life expectancy. It’s characterised by too much glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood. When we eat, our body converts the glucose in the food, into energy. To do this, a hormone called insulin is secreted from the pancreas. People who have diabetes can no longer produce insulin, or sufficient amounts of it, and therefore can’t properly convert glucose into energy.
There are three types of diabetes—all of which are serious.
- Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition which destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Onset most commonly begins during childhood or adolescence, and is usually sudden. This condition represents around 10 per cent of all diabetes cases. It can’t be prevented or cured and is managed by insulin injections or an insulin pump.
- Type 2 diabetes develops gradually as the body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin, or can no longer produce enough insulin in the pancreas. While the cause isn’t known, it’s strongly linked with lifestyle factors, and family risk. It classically develops in people over 45 years of age, but is now being seen in children and adolescents. There is no cure for it, but you can reduce your risk of developing it. It is managed with regular physical activity, healthy eating and weight reduction usually along with medication.
- Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that develops during pregnancy. It usually disappears after the baby is born, but it does increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the future. It will be actively managed by your medical practitioner during pregnancy.
Why is it serious?
Having any form of diabetes puts you at a higher risk of developing a multitude of complications, some of which can be extremely serious or even life-threatening.
When glucose can’t be converted into energy, it stays in the blood causing high blood glucose levels. Over time, these high levels can cause damage to the large and small blood vessels of the body. This in turn, can cause a host of health problems.
Any damage to the large vessels can impact your brain, heart, and legs. Damage to small blood vessels can also lead to problems with your eyes, kidneys, feet and eyes.
Parts of the body affected by diabetes
Brain and heart — Having diabetes can contribute to clogged or blocked arteries, increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease such as angina, heart attack and stroke. If you have uncontrolled diabetes, you’re four times more likely to have a stroke or heart attack.
Blood pressure — You’re at an increased risk of high blood pressure (which is a risk-factor for cardiovascular disease) if you have diabetes. This is due to damage to the nerves that control blood pressure.
Legs and feet — Damaged arteries can lead to poor blood supply in the legs, causing pain and cramps. If you have diabetes you are at higher risk of poor blood circulation, non-healing ulcers, infection and gangrene, which may lead to amputation. Amputations are 15 times more common if you have uncontrolled diabetes.
Eyes — Diabetes is the leading cause of preventable blindness in Australia. It can damage the very small blood vessels in your retina (called diabetic retinopathy), and can also increase your risk of cataracts and glaucoma. All of these conditions can cause reduced or blurred vision, or even blindness.
Kidneys and bladder — Kidney damage is a complication of diabetes, and may lead to a build-up of waste products inside the body. This has the potential to cause kidney failure, which will require dialysis or a kidney transplant. If nerves to the bladder are damaged, you may suffer from bladder control problems or issues emptying your bladder. This can lead to bladder infections and increase your risk of kidney infections. People with uncontrolled diabetes are three times more likely to experience kidney failure.
Reproductive organs — Women with diabetes may experience problems with vaginal lubrication and sexual response, due to nerve damage, while men are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction (impotence).
Diabetes can also cause dry skin, increase your risk for tooth decay and gum infections, and put you at high risk of serious flu complications.
What you can do
While diabetes-related complications are very serious, with careful management you can reduce the risk of many of them. Having regular check-ups with your doctor, and keeping your blood glucose levels under control, are vital to prevent short and long-term complications.
Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with diabetes, it’s worth asking your doctor for a health check. The sooner you’re diagnosed, the sooner you can learn to manage it effectively.