For millions of Americans, diabetes is a silent threat hanging over their golden years. The risks are high and the complications are severe. Diabetes sets the stage for cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, nerve damage, blindness, amputation, and death.
Although many people think diabetes, and prediabetes, must be controlled with some kind of medication, a new federal initiative — the Diabetes Prevention Study — has shown that other alternatives, namely adopting healthy diet and fitness habits, can be even more successful in delaying or even preventing the onset of diabetes.
The Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), initiated in 1996, compared participants who were divided into three groups. The first combined an inactive placebo with coaching about lifestyle modifications, diet, and exercise; a second took metformin twice daily; and a third engaged in an intensive lifestyle modification program (such as eating well and getting 50 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week to lose weight).
No great surprise that the group of individuals who intensively exercised and lost weight reduced their risk of diabetes by 58 percent. The group that took metformin, a drug that prevents the liver from producing too much glucose, reduced their risk by 31 percent.
Because 35 percent of all American adults are classified as prediabetic, and almost one-third of them will go on to develop diabetes, alternatives to traditional pharmaceutical treatments — especially any that slow down or prevent the progression to diabetes — are very important.
The DPP, coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is now carried out in multiple programs across the United States.
One health educator, Santina Jaronki, who works at the Fairfield Health Department in Fairfield, Conn., says results of the program over the past three years have been very positive.
“The CDC aims for 5 to 7 percent weight loss,” Jaronki explains, “and that is what we aim for. After 15 weeks we see each person for monthly follow-ups.
“The program is absolutely helpful. Our initial group lost over 80 pounds. Not everybody stayed; life gets in the way, but eight or nine made it through.”
What program shows is that getting diabetes is not inevitable as you age, nor are all the attendant medical issues. And, even better, you don’t have to take medicine to stall – or perhaps prevent -- the onset of diabetes.
What you can do:
- Read nutrition labels on foods to keep track of fat, calories, and sugar in the foods you eat. Aim to reduce your intake of sugary, high-car foods, including not only sweets, but also bread and pasta.
- Make being active a way of life. Put in at least 150 minutes of activity every week. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park a few blocks from your destination. Engage in yard work or play ball with a child.
- Pay attention to other healthy lifestyle modifications — don’t smoke, drink, to excess, or overeat, and be sure to get at least seven hours of sleep every night and figure out ways to manage stress (through yoga, meditation, or simply listening to music you enjoy).
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