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National Diabetes Month puts spotlight on ‘epidemic’ impacting millions

This month medical professionals are spotlighting a disease affecting more than 133 million Americans. KPBS Health Reporter Matt Hoffman says local health providers are continuing to notice climbing rates of diabetes.

November is National Diabetes Month. The campaign aims to bring awareness to a disease that impacts 133 million Americans. Doctors say it is all about prevention and early detection.

“Any patient can work with his or her physician to help make the basic changes in lifestyle that help prevent the onset of diabetes,” said Dr. Aaron Lehman, chief of outpatient internal medicine at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. “Or if we catch diabetes really early that’s, a chance that we can intervene and make some changes so that an uncontrolled diabetes situation will be less likely to occur.”

Lehman said people are being diagnosed earlier, but rates of diabetes are also increasing. The state health department reports rates have risen 32% over the last decade.

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“The main concern is the lifestyle,” Lehman said. “Either not having an active lifestyle with a lot of exercise or not eating a balanced nutrition.”

Lehman said at Kaiser they see more cases of Type 2 diabetes. Risk factors can involve underlying conditions, family history and lifestyle habits. The San Diego County Health Department reports in 2020 that diabetes was the eighth leading cause of death in the region, with black residents having the highest death rate. Dr. Athena Philis-Tsimikas leads Scripps Health’s Whittier Diabetes Institute. She called the rise in diabetes an epidemic.

“Diabetes truly is an epidemic,” she said. “It’s occurring not only here in our county but across the nation and across the world. So similar to epidemics that occur, the numbers are rising and they haven’t been stemmed yet.”

She also stressed early interventions are key and new technology makes it easier to treat and diagnose. Primary care doctor visits and routine blood testing is often where diabetes is discovered, but during the pandemic some people were not coming in.

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“[Some] patients were prediabetes and perhaps their nutrition changed or they gained weight during the early pandemic years, and now they’re presenting with this earlier,” Lehman said.

Lehman said it is important to remember just because someone is diagnosed with diabetes, it does not mean they automatically go on insulin.

“Making sure that myth isn't out there is really important,” Lehman said. “It’s absolutely is a medicine that your doctor might need to use but just because a diagnosis about diabetes is made doesn’t mean you’ll have to have insulin.”

Philis-Tsimikas said a myth she hears is blood sugar levels do not have to be addressed because the patient does not directly feel an impact.

“I think that’s probably the most scary piece,” she said. “Because even if you let it run a little bit above normal, it can have consequences.”

Doctors recommend avoiding processed foods or those high in sugar. Maintaining an active lifestyle is also important.

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