The UK is in a “rapidly escalating” diabetes crisis, according to new findings.
Diabetes UK has just revealed that 4.3 million people in the UK have been officially diagnosed with the condition, with another 850,000 living with parts of the condition but yet to be diagnosed.
It added that 2.4 million people in the UK are also at high risk of developing type 2 – leading the researchers to call for emergency action from the government.
Diabetes UK’s chief executive Chris Askew called it a “rapidly escalating diabetes crisis”, while experts are particularly worried about the increasing number of under-40s developing type 2.
These statistics suggest the number of people suffering from the condition is at an all-time high – so here’s what you need to know.
What is diabetes?
The amount of sugar in the blood is controlled by a hormone, insulin, produced in a gland called the pancreas, behind your stomach.
After you eat, glucose from food enters the bloodstream and insulin moves it out of the blood and into cells for energy.
But if your insulin isn’t working effectively or your body is not making enough, your body can’t turn the glucose into energy.
This is a serious condition which can affect your whole body. For instance, nerve damage in your feet can cause a loss of feeling, leading to ulcers, infections or even amputations.
Eye screenings are encouraged, as those with the condition are at risk of sight loss. Those diagnosed are also at higher risk of strokes, heart attacks and heart failure.
The longer the condition is left undiagnosed, the more likely it is to get worse and cause long-term health problems.
What are the symptoms for diabetes?
According to the NHS, you should see your GP as soon as possible if you experience these main symptoms:
- Feeling very thirsty
- Urinating more often than usual, especially at night
- Feeling very tired
- Weight loss
- Loss of muscle
- Itching around penis or vagina, or frequent thrush episodes
- Blurred visions
What is type 1 diabetes?
This is a lifelong condition – your immune system attacks and destroys the cells which produce insulin.
Type 1 can develop quickly, over several days or weeks.
Weight loss often occurs when the diabetes forms and before the condition receives proper treatment.
There are no lifestyle changes which can lower your risk from type 1 diabetes.
What is type 2 diabetes?
The body is not able to produce enough insulin, or the body does not react properly to insulin.
Although this type is much more common (over 90% of diabetic adults have type 2), Many people can have it without knowing for years because it can be either without symptoms or it can trigger general symptoms.
Weight loss before treatment is less common in those who have type 2.
To reduce your chance of developing type 2, you can adopt a healthy diet, regular exercise, and maintain a healthy body weight.
Who is at particularly high risk of type 2 diabetes?
The risk factors are “multiple and complex” for type 2, according to Diabetes UK, but these are the most likely ones listed on the NHS website:
- Anyone who is overweight or obese (the risk is seven times higher)
- Anyone with an unhealthy diet
- Anyone with a family history of the condition
- Anyone of Asian, Black African or African Caribbean origin
- Anyone with high blood pressure
- Anyone who had gestational diabetes during pregnancy
- Anyone with high blood pressure
Are there other types?
You can develop high blood sugar when pregnant, which usually goes away after birth, also known as gestational diabetes.
You can also have pre-diabetes (or non-diabetic hyperglycaemia) where your blood sugar levels are higher than the usual level but don’t quite fall into the right threshold for diabetes.
Lifestyle changes can help reduce this risk of becoming diabetes, including the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme.
How does diabetes change your life?
A diabetes diagnosis means you’ll have to improve your diet, take up regular exercise, and have regular checks including blood tests.
Those with type 1 will need regular insulin injections for life, while type 2 will likely need medicine over time as it can worsen. This may be in tablets or injections.
Type 2 can be put in remission though, if the person diagnosed loses weight and reduces their blood sugar.
The NHS also advises quitting smoking or cutting down on alcohol. It suggests checking your weight via the BMI healthy weight calculator, although BMI has been criticised for not fairly assessing someone’s weight.
As Askew said: “Diabetes is serious, and every diagnosis is life-changing.
“It’s a relentless condition, and the fear of serious complications is a lifelong reality for millions of people across the UK.”
What could we do about this diabetes crisis?
Campaigners are calling for more government intervention.
Askew said: “What we need to see is the will, grit and determination from government and local health leaders to halt this crisis in its tracks and improve the future health of our nation for generations to come.”
He added: “With the right care and support, cases of type 2 diabetes can be prevented or put into remission.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme – the largest programme of its kind in the world – has helped over 18,000 people avoid type 2 diabetes through expert advice on healthy eating and exercise.
“As previously announced, our Major Conditions Strategy will cover type 2 diabetes and help to reduce pressure on the NHS, and we’re helping people make healthier choices by restricting the location of foods high in fat, salt or sugar and introducing calorie labelling on menus.”