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Walking to Beat Diabetes

275 walk-a-thons planned for U.S. this fall

SUNDAY, Sept. 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Although there are an estimated 16 million Americans who have diabetes, only about two-thirds of them can describe their experience with the disease.

That's because the rest don't even know they have the potentially devastating condition, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Nicole Johnson, the 1999 Miss America, used to be one of that group. In 1993, as a 19-year-old sophomore in college, Johnson suddenly found herself battling the Type I form of the disease.

"With Type II diabetes, you can have the disease for years before it's ever diagnosed. But when you have Type I, it hits you like a ton of bricks because you become very ill," she explains. "I became violently ill and was taken to the hospital a few times before I was finally diagnosed."

With the help of lifestyle changes and the use of an insulin pump that she wears around the clock, Johnson is now in control of her illness.

And to help raise awareness and funds for diabetes research, she is among the more than 100,000 people who will participate in walks sponsored by the American Diabetes Association (ADA) in 275 U.S. cities this fall.

"I'm blessed to have the opportunity to speak on diabetes and hopefully offer some hope," Johnson says. "This condition is difficult to deal with. I know that because I have first-hand experience. But if we give up, that's when we lose our chances of winning."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently elevated diabetes to the status of an epidemic, and ADA experts say there are no signs the number of new cases is even leveling off.

"Type II diabetes used to be known as 'adult onset [diabetes],' " says Anne Daly, president of health care and education for the ADA. "But we don't even use that term anymore, because it's now being seen even in young teen-agers. And the rates in the general population are increasing exponentially."

Because about 50 percent of Type II diabetics experience no symptoms, it's important to be aware of risk factors, Daly says. Significant risk factors include a family history of the disease; being overweight or inactive; and being Hispanic, African-American, American Indian, or a Pacific Islander, among other ethnic groups.

With so many undiagnosed cases, many people may falsely believe diabetes isn't in their family history, Daly adds.

"People say they don't have diabetes in their family, but we have to remind them that one-third of cases are undiagnosed," she says. "Maybe you think it wasn't in your family, but maybe it was undiagnosed."

Those at risk of the disease are advised to undergo annual diabetes testing, which usually just involves fasting overnight and having a blood test first thing the next morning.

Between 90 and 95 percent of diabetes cases are Type II, the ADA says.

In Type II diabetes, either the body doesn't produce enough insulin or the cells ignore the insulin. Insulin is necessary for the body to be able to use sugar. Sugar is the basic fuel for the cells in the body, and insulin takes the sugar from the blood into the cells. When sugar (glucose) builds up in the blood instead of going into cells, it can cause two problems:

  • Right away, your cells may be starved for energy.
  • Over time, high blood sugar levels may hurt your eyes, kidneys, nerves or heart, according to the ADA.

A proper diet, regular exercise and weight loss are often enough to control Type II diabetes, the ADA says.

Type I diabetes most often occurs in children and young adults. In those cases, the body stops producing insulin, and insulin injections -- or a pump like the one Johnson uses -- are necessary to stay alive.

What to Do: Those interested in participating, either individually or as part of a team, in one of the walks can find out more information at the ADA's site, America's Walk for Diabetes. Wonder if you're at risk for diabetes? Take the Diabetes Risk Test.

SOURCES: Interviews with Nicole Johnson, Miss America 1999; Anne Daly, president, Health Care and Education, American Diabetes Association; American Diabetes Association press release
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