Get tested early to keep disease in check

A diabetic patient undergoing dialysis treatment at Kim Keat Dialysis Centre.
A diabetic patient undergoing dialysis treatment at Kim Keat Dialysis Centre. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Diabetes is one of the biggest preventable drains on the healthcare system. This one disease alone costs the country $1 billion a year, in terms of treatment as well as lost man-hours.

If nothing is done to prevent the steady rise in the number of diabetics here, it is projected that it will cost the country more than $2.5 billion a year by 2050.

There are two types of diabetes.

There is no known way to prevent type 1 diabetes - where the body does not produce insulin - which usually hits the young.

Type 2, where there is too little insulin or the body cannot use the insulin effectively, is preventable, and by far the more common, accounting for about 90 per cent of diabetes cases worldwide. It is largely caused by a sedentary lifestyle and a diet consisting largely of simple carbohydrates like white rice and sugary drinks.

Insulin is needed to move sugar from the blood to tissues in the body.

More than 11 per cent of adults here aged 18 to 69 years are diabetic. The incidence is higher among those aged 70 years and older. This is one of the highest rates among developed countries, exceeded only in the United States.

Aside from more people getting diabetes every year, they are also getting the disease at a younger age.

Preventing complications from the disease is something people with either form of diabetes can work towards. The problem is not just having diabetes, but, more importantly, not being able to keep the level of blood sugar in check.

Uncontrolled, diabetes is the underlying cause of a host of major medical problems, such as heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and amputations.

In Singapore, every five hours another person loses the use of his kidneys and goes on dialysis. About two in three kidney failures are caused by diabetes.

It is a major reason for blindness and results in two limbs being amputated every day.

People who know that they have diabetes can prevent such dire complications with lifestyle changes and medication.

The trouble is that one in three of the more than 400,000 diabetics here do not even know they have the disease. This is largely because diabetes is a silent disease, with no symptoms in the early stages.

Since people do not know they have diabetes, it is not surprising that they are not doing anything to keep it under control.

The Government's plan to move upstream in tackling this disease is the correct one.

One of the first steps in the war against diabetes is to get people to check for diabetes. Control is easier in the early stages, as little damage has been done.

Getting people to find out early means they can work towards keeping themselves healthy in spite of having diabetes.

Another initiative must be to prevent diabetes. Some of the causes are known. Obesity, for example, is a major risk factor for getting diabetes.

Another is a predisposition in children born to women who had uncontrolled gestational diabetes, a type of diabetes that develops only during pregnancy in some women. Studies have shown that four in five children born to such mothers risk becoming obese or diabetic.

It is therefore important that women take great care during pregnancy in order not to disadvantage their babies.

Among the general population, exercising regularly and being careful not to indulge too often in unhealthy food are good ways to stave off diabetes.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'Get tested early to keep disease in check'. Print Edition | Subscribe