Recent research shows that the prevalence and severity of diabetes is growing at a faster rate among millennials than any other group.
No, this isn’t good news, but there’s a silver lining — the earlier you realize you’re at risk for diabetes, the easier it is to address it, meaning many millennials are in a perfect position to assess their health and reduce their risk.
If you’re at risk for this condition, there are several steps your doctor might suggest you take. And you don’t necessarily need to make a monumental transformation immediately — even small lifestyle changes over time can help you stay healthy. Here’s what you should know.
Understanding Diabetes Risk
Diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, a hormone that regulates the amount of glucose in the blood. Insulin converts glucose, also known as blood sugar, into the energy your body uses for its most critical functions.
When this process goes awry, it leads to higher blood glucose levels, which can have a serious impact throughout the body. Your risk of stroke increases, as does your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, nerve and kidney damage and infections, among other conditions.
There are two primary types of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2. Caused by a malfunction in the immune system that prevents the pancreas from making insulin, Type 1 diabetes mostly affects children and young people. Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of this condition, is linked to family history and lifestyle factors like obesity and lack of physical activity. A Type 2 diabetic’s pancreas does produce insulin, but their body cannot process it adequately into glucose for energy.
With Type 2 diabetes, there are some risk factors you can’t control, such as your family history, your race or ethnic background and your age. But several other things factor into your risk for Type 2 diabetes, many of which you can control. If you want to curb your risk, your doctor will likely urge you to focus on making changes that address each of these areas.
1. Quit Smoking (or Smoke Less)
People who smoke are 30 to 40 percent more likely to have Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes. Smoking raises your cholesterol levels and your blood pressure — both of which increase your diabetes risk. Smoking not only puts you at a higher risk of getting diabetes, it also makes it harder to control and manage diabetes once you’re diagnosed.
Of course, quitting smoking is one of the most difficult lifestyle changes anyone can make, so if that’s a change you want to make, talk to your doctor and find out what resources are available to help you. Your doctor can refer you to a smoking cessation program or prescribe nicotine-free medicines or replacement therapy.
2. Increase Your Physical Activity
Exercise is beneficial in so many ways: It reduces your cholesterol, decreases stress and reduces blood glucose levels — which is key, since high blood sugar levels contribute to diabetes.
Fortunately, you don’t need to become a triathlete to lower your diabetes risk. Start small by doing low-impact exercises, like walking for 30 minutes a day. Also look for fun physical activities you can stick to over the long term, like Zumba, racquetball, indoor cycling or kickboxing.
3. Improve Your Diet and Lose Weight
Being overweight has an effect on your blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels, just like smoking does.
For sustainable weight loss, especially when you’re at risk for diabetes, don’t focus on fad diets — they tend to only produce short-term results. Make gradual changes, like replacing one sugary drink a day with 16 ounces of water, eating a protein-filled breakfast several times a week, eating a piece of fruit instead of drinking fruit juice and swapping out white toast and white rice for whole grain, complex carbohydrates like whole wheat bread or brown rice.
Slow and steady wins the race, so instead of making big, dramatic changes, focus on small changes you can maintain.
While it’s true that the earlier you start, the better, it’s never too late to make changes that will improve your health. Understanding your key risk factors can empower you to take steps to prevent diabetes. The key is just to start. Lasting changes don’t happen overnight: They take time and commitment. But by focusing on your ultimate goal — living a healthier life — you can eventually get to where you need to be.