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Diabetes remains the most common cause of death in women and second for men

Diabetes is treatable. Picture: Pexels Pavel Danilyuk

Diabetes is treatable. Picture: Pexels Pavel Danilyuk

Published Nov 16, 2021


Diabetes remains the most common cause of death in women and second for men in South Africa.

An estimated 12.9% of the adult population either have type 1 or type 2 diabetes while a significant number of people might be undiagnosed, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

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The Federation adds that by 2035, almost 600 million people would be living with diabetes, and the figure would rise to 642 million by 2040.

November is observed as Diabetes Awareness Month and organisations and health professionals are raising awareness about the disease and how to prevent it.

“In South Africa, the number of SA adults with diabetes has soared to more than 4.5 million people.

“It is a disease that is increasing globally, mostly because of unhealthy eating patterns and lack of exercise,” says Cape Town-based endocrinologist, Dr Zane Stevens.

Stevens says increased consumption of carbonated drinks and foods high in carbohydrates have contributed to unhealthy eating habits.

Stevens says there are three main types of diabetes:

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  • Type 1: Autoimmune diabetes requiring insulin treatment.
  • Type 2: Lifestyle related diabetes, often with a family history of the condition.

Gestational diabetes: High glucose levels occur only during pregnancy. This type of diabetes can be resolved after giving birth but can also increase the risks of Type 2 diabetes developing later in life.

According to health experts, those who are more likely to develop diabetes have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Overweight or obese
  • Physical inactivity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Family history of diabetes
  • Previous diabetes in pregnancy (gestational diabetes)

Type 2 diabetes is known as a “lifestyle disease” because age and being overweight are the main risk factors.

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Health practitioners say between 60 and 90% of patients are significantly overweight.

They also say while the disease mostly occurs after the age of 40, there’s an increasing number of cases of diabetes among obese adolescents.

Losing weight, exercising and adopting a healthy diet are part of standard treatment.

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“Because Type 2 diabetes emerges silently, one should see a doctor if they are at risk,” says Stevens, adding that “by adopting a healthy lifestyle, the risks and symptoms can be reduced. If treatment is prescribed in addition to lifestyle and dietary measures, the secret to it being effective is to take it properly.”

People who are diabetic are also part of the vulnerable group whose immune system is easily compromised, making them vulnerable to contracting Covid-19.

Registered dietician, Omy Naidoo, says that the impact of Covid-19 is greater for people who are diabetic and overweight.

“People who have diabetes and are obese, are more likely to have serious complications from Covid-19. In general, people with diabetes are more likely to have more severe symptoms and complications when infected with any virus. On the other hand, obesity has emerged as a strong and independent risk factor for severe infection and death due to Covid-19.

“Those recovering from the coronavirus should eat a variety of fresh and unprocessed foods every day to get the vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre, protein and antioxidants their body needs. They should also drink enough water, avoid sugar, fat and salt to significantly lower their risk of diabetes and obesity,” said Naidoo.

According to Dr Daksha Jivan, a physician and endocrinologist at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital, the complications for patients with diabetes who test positive for Covid-19 can be extremely serious.

“They can include coma resulting from very high blood sugar, more severe respiratory illness and pneumonia, disturbance of bodily functions, multi-organ failure, as well as heart attacks, strokes, and pulmonary embolism. There is a four-fold increased likelihood that diabetics will need ICU admission and ventilation if they test positive for coronavirus.

“It’s also important to note that a healthy diet can help lower high blood sugar levels. Avoid sugars and refined carbohydrates, exercise regularly and avoid alcohol and smoking. We urge patients to adhere to their medication schedule, continue home glucose monitoring, have routine blood tests done, and always keep a month’s worth of medication at hand,” says Jivan.

Diabetes is a manageable condition. If you experience any warning signs, contact your healthcare provider and ask them to conduct blood tests. If you are diagnosed with diabetes, good adherence to treatment can make a big difference to maintaining a positive lifestyle. Be proactive and take your medication.

A diet low in saturated fat and high in fibre is also recommended.

The diet should include grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as good fats such as olive oil, flaxseed, and walnuts. It’s important to avoid processed foods.

Here are additional ways to manage diabetes during Covid 19.

  • If the diabetic person is already on medication, they are encouraged to continue doing so.
  • Test the blood sugar and keep track of the results, as directed by the healthcare provider.
  • Ensure at least a 30-day supply of diabetes medicines, including insulin.
  • Follow the healthcare provider’s instructions if not feeling ill, as well as the sick day tips for people with diabetes.