Over 26 million people in the US have diabetes and it’s estimated that about a quarter of them don’t know they have it. Another 84 million Americans have prediabetes, a condition in which your blood sugar levels are high, but not high enough be classified as diabetic.
“A diagnosis of prediabetes is a tool to help you make changes to prevent full-blown diabetes,” says Dr. Ruchi Mathur, an endocrinologist and director of Cedars-Sinai’s Diabetes Outpatient Teaching Education Center. “Knowledge really is power. If you know it, you can do something about it.”
What is diabetes?
When everything is working as it should, insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas, helps your body turn glucose into energy. Diabetes occurs when your blood glucose (aka blood sugar) is too high because your body either doesn’t produce enough insulin or doesn’t use it effectively.
Diabetes is a serious condition, but one that can usually be managed. It can cause severe health problems including kidney disease, nerve damage, blindness, and heart disease, although proper treatment can significantly reduce the risk of complications.
There are two types of diabetes. Both types have risk factors beyond our control, like age and genetics, but type 2 also has a number of risk factors we can control, like diet and exercise.
“It’s really important for patients to educate and empower themselves and understand that if they are motivated and if they make the changes, they can change their outcomes.”
People with prediabetes have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but they also have the opportunity to address risk factors within their control and make changes to prevent the onset of diabetes.
That’s why Dr. Mathur advocates early intervention. “If we can intervene when you’re prediabetic, we can make a big difference,” she says.
Diabetes is sometimes called a “silent killer,” because there may not be obvious symptoms. Someone with diabetes or prediabetes may feel fine, which can make it harder to intervene before serious health problems develop.
“We don’t want people to wait until they are overtly diabetic to get treated,” says Dr. Mathur. “We want to get them while there is ample time to implement change and behavioral modifications.”
Get screened for prediabetes
Finding out if you’re prediabetic is as easy as getting a simple blood test during an annual physical.
Common risk factors for type 2 diabetes include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Being 45 or older
- Having a family history of diabetes
- Having high blood pressure
- Being African American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander
- Having a history of gestational diabetes
- Not being physically active
Even if you’re at low risk—lean, active, and with no family history of the disease—you should be tested regularly after age 45 or when recommended by your doctor.
Change your outcomes
Prediabetes can start 10 years before type 2 diabetes develops, meaning there’s often time to address it before any long-term health issues develop.
“Knowledge really is power. If you know it, you can do something about it.”
Your doctor can work with you to make lifestyle changes that can lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
“It’s really important for patients to educate and empower themselves and understand that if they are motivated and if they make the changes, they can change their outcomes,” says Dr. Mathur.