A Slow Motion Health Care Crisis

Diabetes has risen to epidemic levels in the United States, and in certain subgroups diabetics and pre-diabetics (those showing early signs of diabetes) exceed 50% of the population. Diabetes is the fastest growing major disease in the US – a major study conducted by the New York City Dept. of Health showed that 12.5% of all New Yorkers have diabetes, and another 23% are pre-diabetic. More than one in three New Yorkers is likely to get diabetes in their lifetime, and these numbers are similar for the nation as a whole.

Among South Asian peoples, multiple studies have found that more than half of South Asians living in the West either have or are on their way to developing diabetes (roughly 20% have diabetes, and above 30% are pre-diabetic). These rates of incidence are so high that diabetes is perhaps on the verge of becoming normal for South Asians, with non-diabetics being the exceptional case!

Why does all of this matter? Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, limb amputation, and kidney failure in the US, and is a major cause in death from heart disease as well. Diabetes doesn’t cripple on day one, but poor management of blood sugar can cause the above conditions, and shorten a diabetic’s lifespan by 10 or more years. Kidney failure, and the resulting need for dialysis, is rising sharply, and is the fastest growing component of US healthcare spending. In terms of direct medical spending, the Lewin Group calculated that diabetes treatment cost $92 Billion in 2002; extrapolating this out using the 11% annual growth rate of the disease means that more than $180 Billion (close to 10% of the healthcare budget) is being spent annually on diabetes treatment today!

The New York Times ran an extended series on the diabetes epidemic in 2006, and reports extensively on the difficulty in battling this crisis. Increasing obesity and a lack of exercise are driving factors in diabetes incidence, but the problem is compounded by a medical system that is rewarded for treating the complications of diabetes, and not for the prevention of it. Farm subsidies also lower the price of corn and corn-syrup based foods, encouraging bad eating habits.

What’s to be done to stem this rising tide? Well, I can only offer a bit of simple advice that may help prevent your own diagnosis: avoid liquid sugar, as it’s the easiest dietary change you can make. Avoid non-diet sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks and even juice, as they’re all just sugar water. If you can’t avoid Cokes, switch to diet, and try eating the fruit form of whatever juice you like. This simple change could lower your sugar intake significantly, and prevent you from becoming part of the epidemic.

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