Anyone in need of a cautionary tale to emphasise the importance of Diabetes Awareness Week should look no further than Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks.
Last year, the star of Forest Gump and The Da Vinci Code admitted that he felt a “total idiot” after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2013. Hanks believes that he developed the condition as a result of his past poor diet.
“I was heavy,” he said in an interview with the Radio Times. “You’ve seen me in movies, you know what I looked like. I was a total idiot.
“‘I’m part of the lazy American generation that has blindly kept dancing through the party and now finds ourselves with a malady,” Hanks added.
But could Hanks, who said that he was “feeling just fine” when he received the news three years ago, have predicted that he was heading for a diabetes diagnosis?
“Type 2 diabetes is the commoner form,” says Roy Taylor, Professor of Medicine and Metabolism at the University of Newcastle, “accounting for around 90 per cent of all diabetes diagnoses.
“And whilst Type 1 can come on relatively rapidly, and be recognised through unexplained weight loss, Type 2 diabetes – which alone accounts for the current, weight-related epidemic of diabetes – typically comes on more insidiously.”
According to the NHS website, “Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin to function properly, or the body’s cells don’t react to insulin. This means that glucose stays in the blood and isn’t used as fuel for energy.”
So, with more than one in 16 people in the UK living with diabetes, and a new diagnosis being made every two minutes, how can we spot this condition before it takes hold?
“Excessive thirst is one of the most prominent signs of Type 2 diabetes,” says Simon Heller, Professor of Clinical Diabetes at Sheffield University.
“People may find that they become increasingly thirsty over a short period of time, and this could be a signifier of excessive glucose levels in the blood – which stimulate the brain’s ‘thirst centre’.”
“A very non-specific but important symptom of Type 2 diabetes is general tiredness,” Heller continues.
“Fatigue can be brought on by diabetes as, when blood sugar is low, there is not enough ‘fuel’ for the cells to work with. However, fatigue and tiredness can, of course, be caused by many other medical conditions such as anaemia or depression – so it may not be the best indicator of diabetes.”
“Regular dietary indiscretions may be a sign that you are heading for Type 2 diabetes,” says Clifford Bailey, Professor of Clinical Science at Aston University. “This may involve eating and drinking a lot of the ‘wrong’ sources of calories, or being a smoker.
“If you are receiving treatment or taking certain drugs, such as steroids, this can also precipitate Type 2 diabetes.”
Expanding waist size (40″ or above)
“If your waist size has increased since your young adult life,” says Roy Taylor, “this may indicate Type 2 diabetes.
“However, even though your weight increasing substantially since that time could be an indicator of the condition, if you were already overweight or obese by the age of 21, you may also be at risk.”
“Excessive urination can be a sign,” says Professor Heller, “particularly if it is causing you to get up at night or, in women in particular, accompanied by genital itching or infection.
“This excessive urination is due to glucose ‘spilling over’ from the blood,” adds the endocrinologist, “which, in turn, interferes with the kidneys’ ability to concentrate urine. The genital itching is due to infection with thrush and, if these genital thrush infections recur and persist, you should certainly get tested for diabetes.”
“If you have a sedentary job – for instance, a taxi driver – and you don’t participate regularly in any physically active pastimes or hobbies, you may want to get tested,” says Taylor.
“Another easy to spot surface symptom is that skin infections or wounds will become noticeably slower healing,” warns Heller. “In part, this is because the white blood cells which fight infections become less effective when glucose levels are high and, as a result, wounds will take significantly longer to heal.”
Numbness and blurred vision
“There are other more minor symptoms the patient may pick up on,” says Clifford Bailey. “Experiencing periods of out-of-focus or blurred vision can be an indicator of Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Patients should also look out for occasional numbness of the fingers.”
“It is worth considering being tested for Type 2 diabetes,” adds Taylor, “if someone in your immediate family already has the condition.
“There are also several at-risk ethnic groups – such as Asian or Caribbean people – who are up to four times more susceptible to diabetes than other groups – such as caucasians.”
How to avoid a diabetes diagnosis
“The quantity of food eaten is critical,” warns Roy Taylor, “and habitual physical activity will also help you to modify risk by keeping your weight down.