What do you need to know about diabetes?

There are currently 1.7 million Australian’s who are living with diabetes and it is our fastest growing chronic condition. National Diabetes Week is an awareness-raising campaign by Diabetes Australia running from 12 -18 July 2015. The CEO of Diabetes Victoria, Craig Bennett, says the main aim of the campaign is to spread the message that, “diabetes is a serious and complex condition with an extremely serious risk of complications.”

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that within five years, diabetes will constitute the greatest single burden of disease in Australia. Bennett stresses that the complications and risks of diabetes are often downplayed. “Diabetes comes with a serious risk of complications such as stroke, heart attack and other cardiovascular disease, as well as blindness, kidney disease and amputations.” He adds. “People don’t realise how serious diabetes can be.”

Raising awareness
One of the focal points of the National Diabetes Week campaign is the phrase ‘280 a day’ – a staggering figure representing the number of people that are diagnosed with diabetes in Australia each day. This campaign aims to address misconceptions surrounding diabetes, increase knowledge and understanding of the disease in the general population.

The campaign asks people to use the hash tag #280aday and join in the conversation on Twitter and Facebook. The organisers are encouraging people to share their personal diabetes stories on social media in order to facilitate a broader discussion.

“This is about raising awareness. Speak to your friends and your family in your circles if you do have diabetes,” adds Bennett. “We need people to be aware of this and take the message that this is a serious and complex disease.”

Another important facet of the campaign is celebrating the idea that, “you can be anything if you have diabetes.” During National Diabetes Week, Kellion Victory Medals will be awarded to those people who have lived with diabetes for 50, 60 or 70 years. According to Bennett, “this reinforces the message that you can live a long time and you can live well with diabetes.”

Lifestyle changes
Barbara Theuma from Kurunjang was 39-years-old when she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. She was overtired but simply attributed it to her busy schedule that involved studying, working and looking after three kids.

Diabetes was always present in Barbara’s family. She witnessed her father's improper management of his condition, so upon her own diagnosis, she was determined to change her lifestyle and be a good role model to her children and grandchildren.

Barbara is now in her sixties and grows her own herbs, fruits and vegetables and avoids processed food. She regularly visits the gym, taking part in hydrotherapy classes three times a week, and is part of a ‘living longer living stronger’ program.

Jonathan Wolfe from Brighton is also in his sixties and a few years ago was diagnosed at a routine check-up with pre-diabetes and borderline hypertension. Rather than going on medication, Jonathan decided to drastically change his lifestyle. “I’m not overweight and I’ve always been physically active but I’ve always been a bit of a sugar junkie. I used to have sugar in my coffee a few times a day and a chocolate bar whenever I felt like it. My diagnosis meant a radical change of my diet and stepping up the exercise. I’ve managed to keep it under control and I haven’t had to go on medication.”

Jonathan also runs a few times every week (clocking up about 15-20km per week) and up until last year was frequently doing half-marathons. Another key lifestyle change for Jonathan has been looking more closely at food labels. “I’ve got an app, FoodSwitch, which allows me to scan the barcode and it comes up with sugar and other nutritional information. I’m very conscious of what I eat. I look at all the labels; particularly with innocuous things like milk and sauces that you don’t realise have lots of sugar in them.”

Jonathan says that one of the hardest adjustments is never being able to have dessert when he goes out for dinner. But that is something he has learnt to live with. “I’ve had this diet and lifestyle for a number of years now and I’ve adjusted. I feel good - energetic and healthy. The fact that I can still run and train with people half my age makes me feel good.”

Support is importance
Despite a positive outlook, Jonathan still experiences difficulty with other people who don’t understand his scrupulousness. “When I’m constantly looking at labels saying ‘I can’t have that’, I get a little bit of slack from people who think I’m being over-reactive because they’re not aware of the situation.”

Barbara has similar difficulties with ignorant people who sometimes question her eating choices. This is why she emphasises the importance of support or chat groups for people with diabetes.

“For the first few years that I had diabetes I was on my own. Yet now through the chat groups we make sure everyone has a chance to talk and help as many people as we can to feel like they’re not on their own.” Barbara and Jonathan also emphasise the importance of regular check-ups, regardless of how healthy you think you may be.

Risk factors
A balanced diet and regular exercise can reduce one’s risk of type 2 diabetes and its complications by 60%. “You don’t have to be fat, old or fit the stereotypes to get diabetes. It is not age-specific," adds Bennett.

You can utilise the Australian Government’s online tool, AUSDRISK to determine your risk of developing diabetes in the next five years. Another great online tool is the Victorian Government funded program, Life!, which offers a prevention-based program targeting people aged 50 years and over.

If you are exhibiting the tell-tale signs of diabetes (becoming very thirsty or hungry, needing to go to the toilet a number of times throughout the night or suddenly putting on a lot of weight) you should consult your GP. A simple blood test can measure your blood glucose levels to indicate whether you’re at risk or have type 2 diabetes.

Mr Bennett says that organisations like Diabetes Australia and other state-based organisations are a credible source of expert advice, guidance, information, education and training.

“Our job is to support people with diabetes. We clearly want people with diabetes to be competent in managing their diabetes and to live well,” he said.

Visit the Diabetes Australia website for more information about National Diabetes Week.

Do you or someone you know suffer from diabetes? What are you doing to keep it in check?