Not everyone who has diabetes is aware that they have the condition, making it important to take advantage of available checks.
World Diabetes Day is on Monday 14 November, part of Diabetes Action Month, to help raise awareness of the need to act against New Zealand’s largest and fastest growing health condition.
Screening for diabetes in people without symptoms involves a simple test done by GPs. All men from 45 years of age and all women from 55 years of age should be tested. Although, for Māori, Pacific or Indo-Asian ethnicities, men should be tested from 30 years of age and women from 40 years of age.
Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand Te Tai Tokerau Clinical Nurse Manager Amanda Brown, based at the Diabetes Centre Te Whare Mate Huka at Whangārei Hospital, says that early diagnosis and ongoing management can prevent the condition developing and reduce its effect long-term.
Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas cannot make insulin or when the body cannot make good use of the insulin it produces to keep blood glucose (sugar) levels in the normal range. Insulin is a hormone that helps glucose from the food we eat pass from the blood stream into the cells in the body to produce energy.
Everyone needs some glucose in their blood, but not being able to produce insulin or use it effectively leads to raised glucose levels in the blood. Over the long-term high glucose levels can damage the body and lead to failure of various organs and tissues.
There are two main types of diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition where the body does not produce insulin. Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented but it can be managed through a combination of medication, healthy food choices and exercise.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes where the body does not produce enough insulin, or the cells in the body don’t recognise the insulin that is present. For many people, but not all, Type 2 diabetes can be prevented by following a healthy diet and physical exercise.
There is also gestational diabetes that can develop in some women during pregnancy.
While diabetes cannot be cured, it can be managed. People with diabetes can and do live active and healthy lives – with some not needing ongoing medication.
Amanda says it is important to get tested for diabetes, particularly if there is a history of the condition in your family/whānau. People who are concerned or have a family/whānau history of diabetes should talk with their GP or other primary healthcare provider.
While GPs act as a person’s “diabetes care coordinator”, the Diabetes Centre service provides specialist care and support, with staff based in Whangārei, Dargaville, Kawakawa and Kaitaia.
The team includes nursing and medical staff, as well as dieticians, a clinical psychologist, community support workers, and kaiawhina to help whānau engage with the health system.
Patients are referred to the Diabetes Centre service by their GP or from elsewhere in Whangārei Hospital or Te Whatu Ora Te Tai Tokerau’s other hospitals in Dargaville, Kawakawa and Kaitaia. Currently, patients range in age from 18 months to mid-90s.
Amanda says there are around 10,000 people diagnosed with diabetes in Northland. Of those, around 1000 have Type 1 and around 9000 have Type 2.
“Unfortunately, there’s stigma associated with having diabetes. But, for many people, it’s not their fault,” she said.
“There’s the perception that someone has diabetes because they ate too much sugar. But this is not usually the case – they actually have a genetic condition that caused incorrect coding in their immune system and their pancreas’s inability to generate insulin – and, as a result, they have diabetes.
“Yes, there is an element of lifestyle that impacts diagnosis of Type 2, but it’s not necessarily the root cause.
“Also, there’s no such thing as a ‘diabetes diet’. It’s the same diet we all should be eating – healthy, balanced and well-rounded.”
Unlike many health conditions that rely solely on medical treatment to manage them, diabetes is one where the patient themselves can control its effect on them – through diet and exercise, supported by any medication prescribed by their GP.
Another aspect of monitoring the condition is screening for diabetic eye disease (retinopathy) which is offered free of charge by Te Whatu Ora Te Tai Tokerau’s Diabetes Eye Screening Clinics held throughout the region. Patients are referred to the service by their GP.
“We all want to help you live well with diabetes. It’s a team effort, but with you the patient at the centre and the one in control.”
To help, the My Diabetes Journey app has information and resources not only for people who want to manage their diabetes, but for everyone interested in a healthy lifestyle.