Are You at Risk for Diabetes?

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(This article appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

Joyce B. Robinson, Research & Education Department Director

Diabetes is a disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, the hormone needed to convert sugar, starches, and other food into the basic fuel for the cells in the body. The cause of diabetes is unknown, although genetic and environmental factors appear to play roles. Other factors include high blood pressure, weight gain, or giving birth to a baby weighing more than nine pounds.

Nearly 20 million Americans (about one out of 16) have diabetes. Estimates suggest that one-third of the members of the diabetic population are unaware that they have the disease.

Type 1 Diabetes usually is diagnosed in children. It also can be discovered in young adults, but only rarely is Type 1 first diagnosed in anyone over 20 years old. Type 1 diabetes inhibits insulin production. The body produces either a small amount or none at all.

Type 2 Diabetes is diagnosed most frequently in overweight people over 45 years old. Either the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells ignore the insulin it produces.

Medical Complications

The onset of diabetes can occur either because blood-sugar levels are too high or they are too low.

A blood-sugar level that is constantly too high can damage nerves and blood vessels, causing complications that affect the heart, eyes, teeth and gums, kidneys, skin, feet, and digestive system. A blood-sugar level that is constantly too low can lead to unconsciousness and even death.

Hyperglycemia (high blood-sugar levels) occurs when people with diabetes eat too much food or take too little insulin. Symptoms include: frequent urination, excessive thirst, dramatic weight loss (unrelated to diet), weakness and fatigue, constant irritability, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting, dry or itchy skin, impotence, recurring infections, and poor healing of wounds.

Hypoglycemia (low blood-sugar levels) occurs suddenly in people who are on an insulin regimen and do not eat enough or on schedule or exercise too vigorously. Symptoms include: excessive sweating, shakiness, hunger or weakness, dizziness or confusion, fast heartbeat, headache, tingling hands or lips, and trouble with speech.

Please note: A person with hypoglycemia may become belligerent and be mistaken for someone who has had too much to drink. Doctors recommend treating low blood sugar immediately with glucose tablets, regular soda, juice, or food.

Preventing Diabetes

Type 2 Diabetes can often be prevented with moderate weight loss and regular exercise. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that everyone: Learn to read and understand food labels - Carbohydrates (bread, cereal, pastries, fruits, milk, noodles, rice, vegetables, and candy) may cause your blood sugar to increase.

Exercise regularly - Physical activity helps control blood sugar by efficiently using the sugar that your body creates.

Quit smoking - Smoking restricts the flow of oxygen to tissues, and raises blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Smokers with diabetes are three times as likely to die of cardiovascular disease as are other people with diabetes.

Get checkups - Schedule regular eye exams, dental exams, blood work, and kidney screenings.

Adopt a "heart-healthy" lifestyle - To avoid the risk of heart disease and stroke, follow your doctor's guidelines and monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Medical experts also encourage attempts to minimize stress and anxiety. Stress causes your body to release hormones that raise your heart rate and blood pressure and cause blood sugar to needlessly increase.


Learning that you or someone in your family has diabetes is no cause for alarm. Diabetes is a manageable condition. With proper medication and control, anyone can live a long and healthy life despite this disease.

Chances are that there are support groups and community-based programs in your area to help you better understand diabetes.

For additional information, visit the American Diabetes Association Web site at, or call 800-232-3472.

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