Right now, 1 in 10 U.S. adults has diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And more than 1 in 3 U.S. adults have prediabetes — that’s 98 million people — which increases the chances of developing Type 2 diabetes, a serious disease that can be disabling, even life-threatening.

These numbers reflect what’s happening in North Carolina. According to the American Diabetes Association, 12% of North Carolinians have diabetes and 34% of the population has prediabetes.

If these trends continue, 1 in 3 U.S. adults will have diabetes by 2050. And this isn’t just an “adult” problem. The CDC projects a 700% increase in the number of children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes by 2060.

This means there will be a dramatic increase in the number of people living with chronic kidney disease, blindness, amputation, heart disease, hearing loss and dental issues.

Why is this happening?

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Dr. Adam Spitz

“Generally, the increase in diabetes tracks with the increase in obesity,” said Novant Health endocrinologist Dr. Adam Spitz. “Plus, our lives are becoming less active.”

And can this epidemic be stopped? It will take aggressive intervention at all levels, Spitz said.

Families need to live healthier lifestyles, Spitz said. And government needs to take steps like walkable neighborhoods, healthier school lunches and diverting farm subsidies from unhealthy crops to healthier crops. “The best example would be smoking,” Spitz said. “It took years of work, but ultimately, cigarette use has declined.”

In a recent media briefing about this disease, Spitz discussed diabetes symptoms, treatment advances and support options.

What are the most common diabetes symptoms?

Sometimes prediabetes and diabetes have no warning signs. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages patients to get their blood sugar tested if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Blurry vision.
  • Dry skin.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Extreme thirst or hunger.
  • Frequently need to urinate at night.
  • Have more infections than usual.
  • Lose weight without trying.
  • Numb or tingling hands or feet.
  • Sores that heal slowly or more infections than usual.

Here are some of the most common diabetes-related complications and ways that patients can help prevent them.

Who is most at risk of developing diabetes?

Patients are more at risk of developing diabetes if they have a family history of diabetes or had diabetes during pregnancy (known as gestational diabetes). People who are overweight or of

African American, Hispanic or Native American descent are also more at risk.

If you’re concerned, take this ADA online diabetes risk test and talk to your doctor about your results.

Here are a few things you can do to prevent diabetes:

  • Know your risk factors.
  • Engage in physical activity. Start by taking small steps like a short daily walk and build on your success.
  • Manage or lose weight by watching what you eat. The Mediterranean diet is a great place to start.
  • Talk to your clinician about your concerns.

What’s the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes
is an autoimmune disease. This is when the body’s immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels and turns food into energy.

If a person has type 1 diabetes, it means they can’t produce insulin (which is necessary for survival). Their glucose doesn’t get used for fuel, but stays in the bloodstream.

Type 2 diabetes
happens when there’s a problem with the way the body adjusts and uses sugar as fuel. A person with Type 2 diabetes has too much sugar circulating in their blood because their pancreas isn’t producing enough insulin to overcome their body’s resistance to insulin, which is a result of genetics and body fat.

How serious is a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis?

If you ignore your diagnosis, you’re putting yourself at risk for serious complications. Continued elevated blood sugar that lasts for years can wreak havoc on your body. For example, you might suffer from:

  • Eye damage, such as blindness.
  • Nerve damage. This is a problem because if you lose sensation in your arms or leg, you might not know if you have an injury or infection, which could lead to an amputation.
  • Kidney failure, which could result in living on dialysis for the rest of your life.
  • Increased risk of heart attack or stroke.

But don’t lose hope. Learn more about the steps you can take to reverse your condition or significantly improve it.

How have treatments for diabetes and diabetes management improved in the last 10 years?

Spitz said he’s been impressed by the improvement in diabetes technology.

For example, many of his patients use a glucose sensor. The sensor is a small disc that goes on the skin (often in the back of the upper arm or stomach), which measures the patient’s blood sugar levels in real time, along with predicting if it will go up or down. There are serious and dangerous consequences if a patient’s blood sugar levels are too high or low.

Previously, patients would use finger sticks to test their glucose. By pricking their finger, they could see their glucose number, but would have to test four to 10 times a day to keep track of their levels.

Spitz, who has participated in 15 of the JDRF Ride to Cure bike riding fundraisers, shared an example of the difference he’s seen between the glucose sensor and stick.

“Twenty years ago on my first ride, a biker said he didn’t feel right,” Spitz said. “He pulled over and did a finger stick. Sure enough, he had low blood sugar. Now, with a sensor, all these patients can look at their smartwatches and see where their glucose is and where it's heading.”

Patients who use insulin can also use glucose sensors that can “talk” to their insulin pumps (computerized devices that send doses of insulin to the body), which allows the pump to adjust its medication levels. Parents with children who have diabetes or caregivers also enjoy using sensor technology because the smartphone app allows them to monitor their loved one’s blood sugar levels.

“It’s not just about the numbers,” Spitz said. “This technology has made it easier for people with diabetes to have a better quality of life.”

What have been some of the most helpful diabetes medications that have been prescribed over the past few years?

Within the past 10 years, there’s been a new drug class that’s not only helped patients control their blood sugar, but also helped them lose weight and lower their risk of death.

Ozempic and similar drugs have been used for years to help people with diabetes lower their blood sugar and AIC levels, along with losing weight, and they also lower the risk of cardiac death. Drugs like Jardiance and similar drugs have been shown to not only lower blood sugar, but also lower the risk of cardiac death, congestive heart failure and end-stage kidney disease.

“These drugs have been game changers for a lot of my patients, but with any drug, you need proper supervision and to talk to your doctor to find out if it’s right for you,” Spitz said.

How can you support a loved one with a new diagnosis or may be confused about how to live with diabetes?

  • Get connected to a JDRF diabetes mentor: This organization has a mentor program where they connect your loved one to a patient who went through a similar diagnosis. “They have their medical care team, technology and medicine, but their community is their support system,” said Lily Anderson, community engagement and development manager at JDRF International. “These are the people they can call when something isn’t going right.”
  • Learn more about diabetes: There’s a lot of self-care and self-management with a diabetes diagnosis. The best way to feel empowered about the disease is through education — not ignore what’s happening. Take a look at the ADA and JDRF websites to get started.
  • Become an advocate: If you’re passionate about making insulin affordable or increasing funding for diabetes research, the ADA needs to hear from you. This nonprofit offers a lot of opportunities for you to get involved at the local and national levels to encourage legislators to make diabetes a priority.
  • Rally family support: Spitz encourages his patients to bring their spouses or partners to their endocrinology visits. “I tell them that diabetes is hard and having a second set of ears and eyes is good,” Spitz said. “However, sometimes, support can turn into conflict. I tell both the patient and their spouse: ‘Your spouse is your support system; not your policeman. It's ultimately up to you to do the right thing.’”