‘It can eat you alive’: Doctors warn of dangers of diabetes

— Many people think Type 2 diabetes is something that happens to somebody else. But according to a major study in The Lancet, a UK medical journal, Hispanics and blacks have more than a 50 percent chance of developing diabetes in their lifetime. Black women have the highest risk at 55 percent. Whites have between a 34 to 37 percent lifetime risk.

With those numbers in mind, WRAL Health Team physician Dr. Allen Mask created a diabetes quiz and asked people in the community how much they know about the dangerous disease. Many people knew someone in their family who had diabetes, but they didn’t know much about the disease.

QUIZ: Test your diabetes knowledge

“I might not know too much about it, but if I start having symptoms, I will look on the Internet,” said Lena Chavis.

About 29 million Americans have diabetes. Another 8 million have it but don’t know it. Many more – an estimated 86 million people in the U.S. – are at high risk with pre-diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s pretty much the norm now once 30 to 50 percent of the population gets the disease in their lifetime,” said Dr. John Buse, chief of UNC’s department of endocrinology.

With Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not make any insulin, the hormone required to push sugar into the cells. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder, where the immune system attacks the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.  It represents 5 to 10 percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes and is typically diagnosed in children, teens and young adults. The cause is not clearly understood, but it’s believed that a genetic component, viruses and environmental factors may be involved.

With Type 2 diabetes, genetics only increases the risk. An unhealthy diet and an inactive lifestyle can help push people over the edge.

“Type 2 diabetes is much more complicated. Related to obesity, the insulin doesn’t work as well,” Buse said. “Early in the course of the disease, diabetes is totally asymptomatic. People don’t have a clue.”

The symptoms of Type 2 diabetes include frequent urination, extreme thirst, hunger and fatigue, according to the American Diabetes Association. Those symptoms mean that the disease is already hurting a person’s body, placing him or her at higher risk for life-threatening problems.

The most common complication of diabetes is early death related to heart attack and stroke. It can also lead to vision loss and blindness, kidney disease and amputation. None of that has to happen if people are diagnosed early.

“If you don’t make the diagnosis, you can’t get the treatment,” Buse said. “And if you don’t get the treatment, you know, this is what we call metabolic cancer. It can eat you alive.”

So which test helps diagnose Type 2 diabetes? An oral glucose tolerance test, fasting glucose test, hemoglobin A1c and random blood sugar test can all help.

Mask suggests people get their blood sugar checked, even children, and especially those who are obese or have a family history of the disease.