It’s no exaggeration to say that diabetes is a national health emergency. More than 30 million adults and kids have some form of the disease. Type 1, caused by an immune system attack on the pancreas, usually strikes younger people and follows them throughout their lives. Type 2 is more common and is caused by resistance to the hormone insulin, which tells the body to absorb blood sugar. And 84 million people exhibit signs of prediabetes, which means they have a one-in-ten chance of developing full-blown type 2 diabetes if not treated.
Yet over just the past few years, a remarkable number of diabetes treatments, from medications to surgical solutions to high-tech devices, have shown promise. It’s too soon to declare victory, but these breakthroughs have given people with diabetes something sweet: winning strategies for today and considerable hope for the future. Here are eight that show great promise.
For Pre-diabetes: The National Diabetes Prevention Program
What it is: At one time, Philadelphia police officer Eric Scott, 57, wouldn’t think twice about finishing a quart of ice cream after work. He’s also a fan of his city’s signature snack food: “hot soft pretzels with plenty of mustard.” But when a routine health check revealed that his blood sugar was in the prediabetes range, Scott knew he needed to make some changes. So he joined the National Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) at Temple University, a research-backed yearlong course aimed at helping people with prediabetes eat healthier, exercise more often, and drop enough weight to slash their risk of having their disease progress to type 2 diabetes.
“It works,” says Scott. “I’ve lost 20 pounds, and my blood sugar is lower. I now eat twice as many vegetables, lots of fish and chicken, and way less greasy, oily junk food. I count calories and fat grams and weigh myself every day. And yes, I still have a hot pretzel once in a while, but now I take out the doughy middle to cut carbohydrates and calories. That’s one thing I really like about this program—it helped me find strategies that really fit my life.”
How it works: “Reducing fat is key,” says David Nathan, MD, the study’s lead researcher, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and the director of the Diabetes Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Fat cells, particularly at the abdomen, release hormones that increase risk for diabetes. And it takes only a small amount of weight loss to lower risk. We found that dropping just two pounds lowers your odds for diabetes over three years by about 16 percent.”
Available at hundreds of YMCAs, hospitals, health centers, churches, work sites, and other locations across the country, the DPP is based on a landmark 2002 study that tracked 3,234 overweight people with prediabetes who were divided into three groups: One group undertook simple lifestyle changes, with a goal of at least 150 minutes of exercise per week and a 7 percent weight loss; the second group took metformin, a blood sugar–lowering pill; and the third, the control group, made no changes. After three years, only 14 percent of those in the lifestyle group developed type 2 diabetes, compared with 29 percent in the control group and 22 percent in the metformin group. The lifestyle modifications were so effective, in fact, that the study was stopped a year earlier than planned because the researchers wanted to offer them to all the participants. This spring, Medicare is expected to begin covering the $429 cost of joining a DPP for people ages 65 and older who have prediabetes.