Diabetes affects over 29 million people annually in the U.S. Although the rate of diabetes incidence seems to have plateaued, the Centers for Disease Control predicts that the number of Americans with diabetes could double or triple by 2050. This makes research on prevention for high-risk populations even more urgent. Here are five scientifically-proven ways to help prevent diabetes.

1. Get some shut-eye

In a study that is the first of its kind, researchers at the University of Chicago Medical Center have found a connection between loss of sleep and pre-diabetic conditions. Esra Tasali, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and senior author of the study, pointed out the importance of this research, saying,

“At the population level, multiple studies have reported connections between restricted sleep, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes. Experimental laboratory studies, like ours, help us unravel the mechanisms that may be responsible.”

These mechanisms are 24-hour fatty acids that increase when sleep decreases. These fatty acids usually peak in the middle of the night and decrease as the night wears on. When sleep is limited or poor, fatty acids remain elevated until well into the morning. This makes it harder for the body to regulate blood sugar, a key marker of diabetes.

Although this research is in its infancy, the results suggest a simple change for diabetes prevention: get more sleep.

2. Exercise well

Obesity and a high body mass index (BMI) are risk factors for diabetes, so it stands to reason that for prevention, adding exercise would be a good thing. This offers benefit for 80% of high-risk populations, but for the remaining 20%, exercise may be blocked by something even more powerful: their genes.

The Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism recently published research from a team at the Florida Hospital and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute that found resistance to the benefit of exercise for those patients with a specific genetic code, passed down through generations. This sounds like bad news but may actually be a breakthrough for the people with this gene. Lauren Marie Sparks, PhD, one of the authors of the study, believes that this finding can actually offer hope for those who previously did not respond to prevention of or treatment for diabetes:

“More research is needed to determine which people with or at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes will respond to an exercise program and which will not. Genetic and epigenetic patterns could hold the key to differentiating between the two groups. With that information in hand, we can target specific interventions and treatments to the individuals who will benefit most and identify novel treatment approaches to help those who do not respond to exercise.”

3. Focus on diet

Focusing on a healthy diet is not necessarily a new recommendation for the effective prevention and treatment of diabetes, but new research solidifies its benefit for a specific group: minority women. While everyone benefits from eating a diet full of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, minority women seem to benefit exponentially. Because minority women have a higher risk of diabetes than non-Hispanic white women, a healthy diet has greater implication in terms of number of avoidable deaths due to diabetes.

According to lead author Jinnie Rhee, who conducted the research as a doctoral student in the departments of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Nephrology at Stanford University School of Medicine, these findings go far beyond the confines of the study itself:

“This study suggests that a healthy overall diet can play a vital role in preventing type 2 diabetes, particularly in minority women who have elevated risks of the disease. As the incidence of type 2 diabetes continues to increase at an alarming rate worldwide, these findings can have global importance for what may be the largest public health threat of this century.”

4. Go to college

Education appears to play a role in the success of physical and dietary interventions in the prevention of diabetes. A study from the University of Kansas highlighted the differences in groups with different levels of education. Those with college educations who were physically active reduced their diabetes risk by 6% as compared to their college-educated but inactive peers. Those without a college degree who were physically active only saw a 1% decrease in their risk of diabetes when compared to their non-college-educated and physically inactive peers.

While those who are generally active lower their risk of diabetes with or without a college diploma, once again education confers a benefit to the educated. Kyle Chapman, a KU doctoral candidate in sociology, believes that this hidden benefit may serve to widen the gap between people even further:

“Essentially those with a college degree or more education are benefitting more from the positive health behavior of physical activity than other groups. That’s going to create more inequality in the future. This is real, and if we continue down this road, we’re going to be helping the college educated more than we’re helping the less educated. The less educated are the people who actually need it more.”

5. Get tailored treatment

Diabetes treatment is no longer a one-size-fits-all proposition (if it ever really was). Because there are many different factors that go into preventing and treating diabetes, more and more healthcare providers are looking to prevention and treatment programs that offer more tailored options for each patient based on level of risk and lifestyle.

One study from the University of Michigan Health System found tremendous variation in the success of different interventions. This study found that a more individualized, patient-centered approach (rather than a standard treatment or prevention protocol) could reduce overtreatment and increase success rates in prevention.

Take some time today to assess your risk for diabetes using the American Diabetes Association’s website tools.


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