Prediabetes risks and treatments

Because I am a dietitian, friends sometimes ask me to help them interpret their health fair blood test results. This fall, I had the unhappy chore of telling a friend that the test results showed “prediabetes” and to talk with a physician. Wanting to put a positive spin on things, I also said that it was great to find out about the prediabetes because there are some simple and effective ways to deal with the problem.

My friend is one of the 86 million people in the United States with “prediabetes”. This is a condition in which the blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not as high as when you have diabetes. In seniors over 65 years old, as many as 51 percent have prediabetes and most don’t know it. Yet, 15 percent to 30 percent of individuals with prediabetes will develop diabetes within five years.

Prediabetes doesn’t just increase the risk of developing diabetes. Higher than desirable blood sugar levels increase an individual’s risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia even without diabetes. One study showed reduced brain volume in individuals with prediabetes. Additionally, health complications we associate with diabetes such as damage to the eyes, nerves and kidneys occur at higher rates to individuals with prediabetes.

Exercise and nutrition

Fortunately, there are simple, if not easy, ways to deal with prediabetes. In 2001, the National Institutes of Health’s Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) study showed that individuals with prediabetes who lost 5 percent to 7 percent of their weight and who exercised for 150 minutes per week, could prevent or delay the onset of diabetes.

Losing weight really helps to bring the blood sugar levels down.

And, the necessary weight loss may be a little as 7 to 10 pounds. Using your muscles also helps to lower the blood sugar. Those 150 minutes of moderate, aerobic activity means 30 minutes, five days per week. But don’t get the idea that you have to knock yourself out with the activity. It doesn’t have to be uncomfortably vigorous - moderate means that you can hold a conversation during the activity. And, it doesn’t have to done all at one time – it could be two, 15-minute sessions or three, 10-minute sessions in a day.

A recent study showed that doing resistance exercise (think free weights or stretch bands) for 150 minutes per week was also effective in lowering blood sugar levels.

The time to act is now

In many ways, seniors in the U.S. are healthier than previous generations and we are living longer. But, diabetes and prediabetes are veritable epidemics that could take some of the glow off your golden years. Be sure to discuss your prediabetes risk factors with your medical provider. If you have prediabetes, be glad that you found out and get support for weight loss and exercise – there is still time to prevent diabetes and complications.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension and the YMCA (both in Anchorage) will be offering the National Diabetes Prevention Program for individuals with prediabetes starting in 2014 and 2015.

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Anchorage. Call her at 786-6313.