The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 29 million Americans suffer from diabetes today, an increase of more than 10 percent since 2010 when the agency issued its last report. The actual numbers may still be higher because a quarter of all diabetics don’t even know they have the disease, according to the survey. Other research predicts that more than half of the U.S. population will be affected by the end of this decade.
Worldwide, the statistics are equally as discouraging. The World Health Organization (WHO) thinks that globally nearly 350 million people have diabetes. The vast majority of those, about 80 percent, live in low- and middle-income countries. The disease is projected to be the seventh leading cause of death by 2030.
Alarmingly, more and more people develop diabetes at a younger age. 1.7 million Americans aged 20 years and older, and nearly a quarter of a million children and adolescents, have been newly diagnosed in 2012 alone, according to the CDC study. A whopping 86 million adults have pre-diabetes, meaning they are at an elevated risk of getting sick in the near future. Minorities, including African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, seem especially vulnerable.
In 2012, treating diabetes and related health complications accounted for $245 billion in medical costs and lost work and wages. Overall productivity loss could be much higher and reach well over one trillion, the researchers suggest.
Diabetes is an illness that occurs when the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin, or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar. If untreated, diabetes can lead to hyperglycemia, chronically elevated blood sugar, which can cause irreversible damage to blood vessels and nerves, and, in advanced stages, result in loss of limb and blindness.
There are two kinds of diabetes. One is called Type 1 diabetes, an insulin deficiency that is usually linked to a damaged pancreas and is not considered preventable. The other, Type 2 diabetes, results from ineffective use of insulin, and is presumably acquired through diet and lifestyle. It is often seen in connection with weight problems. The vast majority of diabetes cases is of this type.
While the occurrence of Type 2 diabetes is mainly blamed on poor diet choices, overeating, and sedentary lifestyle, it is less clear why the disease has been spreading so fast and even seems to accelerate. Experts warn that unless we succeed in implementing more effective countermeasures, we won’t be able to stop this looming pandemic.
“We need a sense of urgency,” said Dr. Dennen Vojta, a senior vice president of the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform and Modernization in Minneapolis to WebMD. “There is a lot of money and human suffering at stake. The good news is that we know what works, and if we work together in a concerted national way, we can win.”
But what would such concerted action entail? Past attempts have been less than encouraging. For example, proposals to raise taxes on fast food and sugary beverages, which are known to contribute to weight problems, or posting warning labels and detailed nutritional information on such items have not gone far in most places, despite of growing support among consumers.
The tragedy of it all is that we have at least some answers to these problems, but are – for whatever reasons – unable or unwilling to apply them. Soon enough, the consequences of today’s inaction will become overwhelming.