Diabetes in the UK is at an all-time high, according to analysis of NHS data released by Diabetes UK to mark Diabetes week. There are now 3.9 million people with diabetes in the UK and growing numbers are diagnosed each year.
It could be argued that these numbers reflect the fact that better treatment means people are living longer with diabetes rather than dying from it prematurely. And some of the increased incidence may be due to better awareness and diagnosis by patients and doctors. GPs are incentivised to identify previously undiagnosed cases of diabetes and penalised if their rates of diagnosis are deemed too low.
But let’s be honest. The main reason that rates of diabetes are so high is that we’re fatter than ever. A quarter of British adults are obese, compared with an average of 16.7% in the rest of Europe. And Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, has said, rather tortuously, that something must be done. “The ghost of Christmases past reminds us that 20 years ago we didn’t have these problems as a nation. The ghost of Christmases future tells us that if we get our act together – as the NHS, as parents, as schools, the food industry – we can get back in shape.”
In type 2 diabetes, which accounts for over 90% of diabetes in the UK, the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or is resistant to its effects, so blood sugar levels rise, causing harm to blood vessels and the organs that they serve. The ill-effects include kidney, eye, brain, nerve and heart damage. Once diabetes develops, the best case scenario is that drastic changes to lifestyle and drug treatment keep complications to a minimum. But poor control of blood sugar levels significantly increases the risk of devastating conditions such as strokes, heart attacks, visual loss and gangrene.
It’s not all about what we eat. Genes play a role too, with some people being predisposed to diabetes and obesity. An EU project named Diabesity has been set up to try to identify the genes that regulate appetite and metabolism, with the aim of developing drugs to prevent and treat the condition.