Diabetes isn't an inevitable destiny

Before I started elementary school, my mother worked part-time as a domestic, cooking and cleaning for rich folk, as we called them.

Whenever a family didn't want a young child in their house, my mother would send me to her sister's house down the street.

Aunt Clara Mae was a vibrant woman when I first started staying with her, but eventually she slowed down tremendously.

Part of the reason was injuries from an accident, but another was diabetes.

I remember her eyes looking gigantic because of the thick glasses she was forced to wear, and I remember her losing a limb to the disease.

A relative told me my ­maternal grandmother ­suffered with the same ­disease, and I recall a ­maternal uncle having it, too.

My husband's mother also died with complications of diabetes.

Now, I have at least four friends, all African-American, with the disease, and two of them are younger than I am.

It's almost as if diabetes is a culturally accepted condition, sort of like a rite of passage for black people.

Recently, however, I discovered that acceptance is true for most minorities in the United States.

Nationwide, Native Americans, Native Alaskans, Hispanics and blacks are twice as likely as whites to be diabetic.

In Kentucky, 17.4 percent of blacks have diabetes, ­compared with 8.5 percent of whites, according to the Kentucky Diabetes Prevention and Control Program.

With April being National Minority Health Month, I decided it was time to get on my soapbox about diabetes.

But don't think this is a black disease. It's just that blacks and other minorities get it more frequently, and we tend to die from the disease twice as much. Diabetes in 2003 was the sixth leading cause of death in this state.

And all that for a ­manageable disease.

First, lets look at what diabetes is.

Diabetes is a group of ­diseases marked by high ­levels of blood glucose or sugar. The elevated levels could be due to defects in insulin production, defects in insulin action or both.

Insulin converts sugar, starches and other foods into the energy we need.

Type 1 diabetes, or what we used to call juvenile diabetes, is characterized by our body's inability to produce insulin. Untreated, people with Type 1 can lapse into a coma. Symptoms of Type 1 include increased thirst and urination, hunger, weight loss, blurred vision and extreme fatigue, all in a short period of time.

But that type accounts for less than 10 percent of the cases.

Type 2 diabetes, or what we called adult-onset diabetes, occurs when our bodies can't make enough insulin or don't efficiently use what we make. Symptoms of Type 2 include fatigue; thirst; frequent urination, especially at night; weight loss; blurred vision; frequent infections. and slow healing. These symptoms are slow to be noticed, which is why so many people have the disease but are unaware of it.

Type 2 accounts for at least 90 percent of all ­diabetes cases.

And then there is gestational diabetes, which occurs during pregnancy.

The good news is Type 2 diabetes can be slowed or even prevented if we simply change the way we live.

Well before a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, people are pre-diabetic, meaning their blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. About 54 million people in the United States are pre-diabetic.

All is not lost, however.

All we have to do is lose 5 percent to 7 percent of our body weight, eat healthier and get half an hour of physical activity five days a week.

For someone weighing 200 pounds, that means losing 10 to 14 pounds.

We can eat smaller portions — with more raw vegetables and fruit — and stop eating before feeling gorged.

That's not that hard.

Because my husband and I have had diabetic relatives, we and our siblings are more mindful of the pitfalls and have escaped diabetes so far.

You should make a concerted effort to ban diabetes from your family as well.

This month is a good time to start.