Are you unknowingly speeding towards a diabetes diagnosis?

One Australian is diagnosed with diabetes every eight minutes, but many cases could have be prevented. Here’s how to change course if you’re at risk.

Two million Australians are walking around completely oblivious to the fact they have prediabetes, and at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

If unmanaged, type 2 diabetes can lead to blindness, stroke, kidney damage, heart disease and amputations.

Roughly 1 million Australians have type 2 diabetes, and a further estimated 500,000 people also have the condition but, perhaps mistaking their blurred vision and tiredness as being just part of getting older, have not yet been diagnosed.

Diabetes is a growing problem in Australia, with the number of cases diagnosed between 2000 and 2020 almost tripling, according to an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report – which also revealed an average of 175 people are diagnosed each day.

So, what is prediabetes?

Although it is not a commonly known term, prediabetes is a frighteningly common condition causing elevated blood sugar levels but often without any tell-tale signs there’s something wrong.

Risk factors for prediabetes are the same as for type 2 diabetes and include family history, overweight, low physical activity, smoking, and high blood pressure.

Experts say many of those with prediabetes could – with simple changes to their diet and lifestyle – halt its progression into diabetes.

Unfortunately, the lack of awareness about prediabetes coupled with there being no obvious symptoms means most will not learn there’s a problem until it’s too late.

“Unfortunately, prediabetes has no major signs or symptoms, which makes it challenging to diagnose,” Diabetes Australia dietitian and educator Helen Jackson says.

How can prediabetes be managed?

While there are no definitive records, it is believed 16.4 per cent of Australians have prediabetes and still have a good chance to stop the disease in its tracks.

Melbourne University Department of Medicine Associate Professor Sof Andrikopoulos says between 30 and 40 per cent of those with prediabetes will eventually go on to develop type two diabetes, 25 per cent will return to normal function, and the remainder will stay prediabetic.

The good news is studies show that lifestyle intervention such as good exercise, diet and weight loss can prevent the progression of diabetes.

“Our strongest weapon in the prevention of progression from prediabetes to diabetes is lifestyle intervention,” Prof Andrikopoulos says.

Who is at risk of prediabetes?

While those at higher risk of diabetes – smokers, people with a family history, who are overweight or from particular ethnic backgrounds – are more likely to be tested for the condition, Helen says there are many others who fall through the cracks.

“Those with high risk factors are the people the doctors probably have on their radar,” Helen says.

“If diabetes is in the family, you should be getting checked early.

“It used to be an older person’s condition.

“Now it’s happening in your 20s.”

Helen believes the stresses of modern life have a lot to do with more young people developing prediabetes.

“We’re all stressed, and stress is a very big factor for diabetes as well,” she says.

“I guess we’re just not looking after ourselves properly.

“And it’s more known about now, whereas a long time ago, it probably wasn’t picked up until later in life. Whereas prediabetes is developing already in your 20s, and it can take 10 years of having pre-diabetes before you develop Type 2 diabetes.”

How to check if you have prediabetes

According to Helen, a good GP will likely perform annual health screens on people aged over 40, and prediabetes can be picked up in a blood test.

Yet, she urges all people to advocate for their own health and request screening.

“Often we assume the GP will just screen us for whatever is needed,” Helen says.

“But the GP doesn’t know everything about you.

“They don’t know your entire family history.

“You have to be proactive about your own health.

“And so there needs to be awareness in the community because, unfortunately, the average person still doesn’t know enough about prediabetes.”

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Written by Siobhan Duck.