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If you experience symptoms like increased thirst, frequent urination, unexplained weight loss, increased hunger or tingling in your hands or feet — your doctor may decide to run a test for diabetes.

by Tom Cramer, VA Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2014

Department of Veterans Affairs researchers are locked in battle with an enemy that is quietly maiming and killing thousands of Americans who have served their country.

It’s not posttraumatic stress, depression or traumatic brain injury.

The Culprit

“Type 2 diabetes is at epidemic proportions among the Veteran population,” noted Dr. Tim O’Leary, acting director of VA’s Office of Research and Development. “It affects nearly 20 percent of Veterans who use the VA health care system, compared to 8.3 percent of the general population. This means that diabetes — and with it, the risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness, renal disease and amputation — affects more than one million Veterans at any given time.”

To make matters worse, millions of people don’t even realize they have the disease, since it can start out so subtly.

“This is of tremendous concern for us at VA,” O’Leary said, “and why we’re doing research that not only helps Veterans avoid developing diabetes in the first place, but also helps them avoid developing those several other conditions I just mentioned.”

The physician noted that VA already has an extensive research portfolio when it comes to diabetes, and is adding to it all the time.

What are some of the risk factors of diabetes?

  • Family history of diabetes
  • Being overweight
  • Being over age 40
  • Have had gestational diabetes
  • Not enough physical activity

A Weighty Issue

“Let me tell you about a few of the hundreds of studies we have underway,” O’Leary said. “Many of our researchers are studying weight management, since being overweight or obese are significant risk factors for developing diabetes and are also epidemic among the Veteran population. Approximately three-quarters of Veterans are overweight,” he observed, “and nearly 40 percent are obese.”

O’Leary said VA has participated in a number of large clinical trials, such as the Diabetes Prevention Program, where it was shown that losing weight and increasing exercise can reduce the progression from pre-diabetes to type 2 diabetes.

“This effort,” he said, “has contributed to VA’s national weight management program, called MOVE, and has also been used beyond VA to improve the health of all Americans.”

Millions of Americans are unaware that they have diabetes, because there may be no warning signs.

You Are What You Eat

O’Leary said that while weight management is critical, diabetes isn’t entirely about how much we eat, but what we eat.

VA researchers are taking a close look at the role diet plays with regard to insulin resistance (the body’s inability to efficiently process the hormone insulin). “In one study,” O’Leary said, “researchers found that having too much iron in the diet can lead to insulin resistance. In another study, they found that fish oils — those omega 3 fatty acids we hear about so much — may help improve your insulin resistance.” (Fatty fish include salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and albacore tuna.)

But what if you already have diabetes?

Work on Your Social Skills

“Our researchers have found that social networking — that is, in-person counseling and support groups — are highly effective at helping Veterans manage their diabetes,” said Dr. David Atkins, director of Health Services Research at VA’s Office of Research and Development.

“In one VA study in particular,” he said, “our researchers found that group educational meetings — led by a pharmacist — can help patients with diabetes and depression get better control over their blood sugar levels. In another study, we found that patients with diabetes were better able to control their blood sugar if they simply talked with other diabetics, as well as their nurses, about their condition.

“And in a very recent study, we found that African Americans with hard-to-control diabetes made significant gains in keeping their blood sugar under control after working with mentors who had similar health problems,” explained Atkins.

“In other words,” Atkins concluded, “support and encouragement from other people can make a big difference in your motivation to stay healthy. The more people you connect with, the better off you’ll be.”

Feeling Isolated?

But what if you happen to live in a rural or isolated area or you can’t drive, or it’s really difficult for you to leave your house?

“We have robust telehealth and eHEALTH programs here at VA,” Atkins said. “No matter where you are, we can connect with you and give you the support you need. You’re never alone.”