Diabetes, fourth leading cause of death for N.C. African Americans

Bonnie Winston
November 14, 2011

diabetes-fourth-leading

Ever hear your grandmother say someone "has sugar?"

She was talking about diabetes, a disease that effects how blood sugar - glucose -- is absorbed in the body.

"Everyone has sugar in their blood. But the problem with diabetes is excessive sugar in the blood," said Dr. Anthony U. Emekalam, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at Elizabeth City State University and director of the ECSU Health Resource Center. "Sugar shouldn't be in the blood. It should be inside the cells and inside the tissues where it's needed for metabolic activity."

While old expressions may still exist, people everywhere can benefit from information about diabetes and how to prevent it. With November's designation as National Diabetes Awareness Month, Emekalam and health professionals across the nation are joining the effort to combat the disease by bringing wider public understanding of diabetes and its impact.

Nationally, nearly 26 million people have diabetes, with another 79 million at risk for developing it, according to the American Diabetes Association.

In North Carolina, the statistics are particularly grim. According to 2010 national figures, North Carolina ranked 13th highest among all the states for adult diabetes prevalence, with nearly 1 in 10 adults diagnosed with diabetes. Diabetes also is the fourth leading cause of death for African-Americans in North Carolina.

The disease contributes to higher health-care costs for individuals because those who get diabetes often suffer from disease-related complications, including heart disease, blindness, lower extremity amputations and renal disease. In 2007, diabetes contributed to 37,596 hospitalizations in North Carolina alone and there were more 2,608 lower extremity amputations among people with diabetes, according to the North Carolina Diabetes Prevention and Control Program.

Emekalam is involved in numerous community health outreach activities, including efforts to educate people about diabetes through church initiatives. Last week, he met with pastors of 10 churches from North Carolina and Virginia about creating programs for diabetes awareness within their congregations.

Already, a pilot program involving five churches in Elizabeth City and Hertford has been underway for about a year, he said. From 300 to 500 people have been reached because of the churches' commitment to diabetes education and awareness.

Similarly, a free diabetes prevention and management program offered through the ECSU Health Resource Center has reached from 600 to 1,000 people since it began four or five years ago. Additional funding is being sought to continue the monthly education programs, free access to exercise equipment and diabetes and other health screenings.

Emekalam said it is important for people to understand the disease and what they can do to prevent it. While diabetes can occur in children or adults, the adult onset - called Type II diabetes - is the more common form of diabetes.

"Type II diabetes is a disease of lifestyle," Emekalam said. "It's when someone lives a life of inactivity and a life of uncontrolled consumption of unhealthy food."

Normally, when people eat, their blood sugar rises but returns to normal levels after a short period when the excess sugar leaves the blood and enters the tissues where it's used for cell metabolism, Emekalam explained. A hormone called insulin, which is created in the pancreas, works to open the tissues to let the sugar in.

"When we don't have adequate insulin to take the sugar from the blood into the cells, the sugar has no choice but to stick around in the blood," he said. "And once it's there, it causes all kinds of problems for the patient - from blindness, to heart disease, kidney failure and lower limb amputation."

Physical activity can help change that, he said. "It sensitizes your muscles to insulin and makes your insulin work harder for you. It really does help to control your blood sugar."

He advises students, faculty, staff and people of all ages to get active. "It is the best thing anyone can do for their body," he said, suggesting brisk walking, climbing the stairs instead of using the elevator and riding a bicycle.

While Type II diabetes typically isn't seen in children, the current epidemic of obesity has contributed to children as young as 11 and 12 being diagnosed with Type II diabetes.

"That's what makes this a compelling situation," Emekalam said. "As a result of this situation -- obesity among children - there's a prediction that the generation that is coming behind ours is going to be the first generation in history that will have a lower life expectancy than we have."

Emekalam recommends that people watch for certain symptoms, including excessive thirst, excessive urination, excessive hunger, blurred vision, excessive tiredness and problems healing from wounds or bruises.

"These are indications that you should get checked out by your doctor or a primary care physician," he said.  Tests for diabetes involve a series of random blood tests and/or fasting blood glucose tests. "Going to a health fair and having someone pricks your finger may give you an idea, but that doesn't replace a diagnosis by seeing a doctor," he said.

Additional information, including healthy recipes for the holidays, is available on the American Diabetes Association website at www.diabetes.org, or by calling the association's Center for Information and Community Support at 800-DIABETES (800-342-2383).