Diagnosis diabetes: A health issue that needs to be taken more seriously
This article is part of a series called Diagnosis Diabetes, which is made possible with a grant from the USC Center for Health Journalism's 2022 Impact Fund for Reporting on Health Equity and Health Systems.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 37 million people in the U.S. have Type 2 diabetes. And it’s on the rise.
However, many people don’t realize that they are at risk for a diabetes diagnosis. As part of the reporting series “Diagnosis Diabetes,” Texas Public Radio’s Yvette Benavides and David Martin Davies went to San Antonio’s Woodlawn Lake Park and talked to people about how diabetes is impacting their lives.
The following story is written from their experience and perspective.
We set up a table next to the walking path. It was festooned with bottles of water, Texas Public Radio swag, and some vegetable plants potted up to give away.
The plants were a hit. Folks came to the table. And we were able to ask them if Type 2 diabetes is something that affects their family.
Nearly every person we spoke to was directly impacted in some way by the disease and its complications.
“I just see my family struggle. My father had it. My grandmother. I have two brothers that have diabetes,” Sandra Smith told us.
Because diabetes is so present in her immediate family, Smith is certainly at risk for it. But she said she wasn’t really aware of that.
“Even though I know it’s in my family, I wasn’t paying attention because I didn’t have it. But now that I’m pre-diabetic, I’m trying to. I’ve been to a nutritionist and we’ve been talking about things to eat,” Smith said. “So that’s my struggle. No refined, no chips, no cookies – you know – have a cookie but not a whole pack of cookies, stuff like that.”
And she’s walking. That physical activity is important.
Many people we spoke to said they are aware of diabetes and its terrible health complications. But they didn’t know much more than that.
Laura Villareal said her father is diabetic and she has high blood pressure but she didn’t realize that she is at risk.
“I actually was just telling a friend. I said, ‘man, it would be awful if I became diabetic, cause I don’t know anything about it,’” she said.
Doctor William Herman, who leads a federal advisory committee trying to better address diabetes, told us a lack of awareness has long been a problem.
“There are almost a hundred million people who have pre-diabetes and the vast majority of them have no idea that they are at risk for diabetes,” Herman said. “One of the things that came up in the national clinical care commission was that diabetes has traditionally been viewed as a medical problem. So you get diabetes and then you get treated for your diabetes. There’s a changing perspective now that diabetes is more of a societal problem.”
Diabetes is a societal problem. This is an idea that we heard from people we spoke with.
“My mother had Type 2 diabetes and also my dad lost his leg because of diabetes. And they’re both deceased, but you could say more or less diabetes took them,” said Mary Estrada, a nurse we met on the walking trail. She has seen the increase in Type 2 diabetes – particularly in children.
“I think education should start at home and I think they could use a little education even in elementary school because a lot of kids are obese,” she said.
In Texas, 20.3% of youth ages 10 to 17 have obesity, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s State of Obesity report.
“Obesity is associated with more convenience stores, fast food restaurants in the community. So, too, is Type 2 diabetes,” Dr. William Herman told us. “So your risk of diabetes is greater if you live in a community with fast food restaurants and convenience stores. And your risk of Type 2 diabetes is lower if there are full service grocery stores in the community or the neighborhood where you live.”
A preschool teacher interviewed for the story at Woodland Lake Park raised the same concerns. She asked to remain anonymous. She said that over the years, she has observed that more and more children are obese.
“Over the past 10 years, it’s just gotten worse. Like we see kindergartners come in obese. They’re pretty heavy and, and it just doesn’t get better first grade second [grade],” she said. “So you mix poor diet with not being active and you’re young and you’re four and five, forget it. By the time you’re a teenager, you’re gonna be obese. You’re gonna have diabetes.”
Research happening right here in San Antonio shows that childhood Type 2 diabetes is rising at an alarming rate and it’s extremely aggressive. Even with treatment, before these kids reach middle age, they could have complications like blindness, amputations, or be on dialysis.
TPR will be reporting more on this in the coming months in the series Diagnosis Diabetes. But one issue that we’re running into is this paradox – Type 2 diabetes is a serious disease – that needs to be taken more seriously.
Editor’s Note: The series Diagnosis Diabetes is made possible with a grant from The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School.