WASHINGTON – Robert Huber dropped 30 pounds, increased his energy and improved his health, not with a fad diet or obsessive exercise but by walking 30 minutes a night with his wife, eating less meat and more vegetables.
The 72-year-old Cheverly resident not only lost weight — he reduced his chances of developing type-2 diabetes by 71 percent.
“Before the program, I did very little exercise and the weight was becoming too much for me,” Huber said. “My health status has improved so much. The long-term rewards are so great.”
Huber is one of 170 Maryland residents in a national clinical trial that showed healthier diets and exercise can delay and possibly prevent type-2 diabetes in a diverse population of overweight people with a condition called “pre-diabetes.”
The study compared the effectiveness of an oral drug and lifestyle changes to see which was more effective in preventing type-2 diabetes. It found that men and women of all ethnic groups who changed their lifestyles reduced their risk of developing diabetes by 58 percent. Risk fell 71 percent for those 60 and older.
The drug, by comparison, cut diabetes chances by 31 percent.
This is good news for Maryland, which is known as a high-risk state for diabetes because of its large African American population, which is almost twice as likely as whites to get type-2 diabetes. As many as 340,000 people in the state are believed to have type-2 diabetes, but only about two-thirds have been diagnosed, and officials say up to 2.3 million may be at risk because of their age, weight and physical inactivity.
“The rate of diabetes has been growing in the United States so rapidly it is becoming a crisis, and Maryland is among the worst when it comes to diabetes,” said Dr. Christopher D. Saudek, the lead endocrinologist in the Johns Hopkins University trial.
“This large trial nationwide showed that if we could get people to lose enough weight, make moderate diet changes and exercise we can prevent this,” Saudek said. “Now we have to take public health measures to encourage these behaviors.”
The five-year study of 3,234 people was conducted at Hopkins, Washington Hospital Center’s MedStar and 25 other sites across the country. It ended a year early because the results were so convincing.
Based on the findings, the Department of Health and Human Services last week launched a national awareness campaign to educate people at risk for diabetes and health care providers called “Small Steps, Big Rewards.” Recommended lifestyle changes include moderate diet changes, a loss of 5 to 7 percent of bodyweight and at least 30 minutes of brisk walking five days a week.
The campaign, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, will be run by the National Diabetes Education Program and its 200 partners nationwide. Maryland’s Division of Diabetes Control and the Center for Cardiovascular Health and Nutrition will work with private organizations to get the message out.
Maryland will make a special effort to reach children about health choices and the importance of physical activity, said Earl Schurman, chief of the Division of Diabetes Control. He said children developing type-2 diabetes has been a growing problem in the state and nationwide.
The campaign marks a change in the state’s approach to the disease. Traditionally, state agencies focused on improving the quality of care for diabetics instead of trying to prevent diabetes.
“Until recently, we really only had one choice, to improve quality of care once diagnosed, but this new information shows diabetes is no longer inevitable,” Schurman said. “We are really coming out of the gate in term of primary prevention.”
Health officials say risk factors for diabetes include being overweight, inactive, 45 or older, having high blood pressure, a family history of diabetes or giving birth to a baby of more than 9 pounds. Minorities are more likely than whites to develop type-2 diabetes.
About 16 million Americans have type-2 diabetes and 16 million people ages 40 to 74 have pre-diabetes, a condition when blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not yet diabetic.
The CDC says diabetes kills more than 193,000 people each year in the United States, where 2,186 new cases are diagnosed every day. Diabetes is the sixth-leading cause of death by disease in the country.
Cases are increasing dramatically each year, putting a drain on the U.S. health system. That prompted this movement to slow the development of diabetes.
“It all comes down to weight gain and the fattening of the American population,” Saudek said. “If we can take the edge off that trend, then will reduce the epidemic of diabetes.”