Diabetes — chances are you know someone who has been affected by this disease. But, what is diabetes, medically speaking? The term diabetes can refer to a group of chronic diseases that occur when there are increased levels of blood sugar over a prolonged period of time. In general, diabetes can develop when the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin, or when insulin cannot be properly processed by our cells. In either of these cases, the glucose in the blood will not be utilized efficiently. In addition, the resulting high blood glucose will cause a number of symptoms including frequent urination, increased thirst and hunger, and weight loss. The body can also switch to burning fatty acids rather than using glucose for energy. In this situation, the fatty acids are converted into ketone bodies through beta-oxidation to release energy. Over time the ketone bodies will accumulate in blood and decrease the pH, ultimately disrupting the buffering system in blood. The resulting “diabetic ketoacidosis” can be a life-threatening complication of diabetes. Other diabetic complications include stroke, diabetic neuritis and vision loss. These long-term complications are very severe and can be fatal if untreated.
Diabetes is a common but severe long-term metabolic disease. The World Health Organization’s 2014 data indicates that about 9% of the global adult population (age > 18) suffered from this disease and more than 1.5 million people died from complications caused by diabetes. Governments and private companies invest huge amounts of money into research to fight diabetes each year. At the same time, improving education about the causes and symptoms of this disease is critical in preventing diabetes and performing early treatment to patients.
There are three main types of diabetes.
- Type I diabetes, sometimes referred to as “insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus” or “juvenile diabetes”, happens when the pancreas loses its ability to produce insulin. The development of this kind of diabetes is complicated. Often, type I diabetes results from an autoimmune response where the pancreas beta cells are attacked and destroyed by a patients own immune cells. Without the beta cells the pancreas can no longer produce insulin. Type I diabetes usually happen in juvenile age, though it can arise later in life.
- Type II diabetes is caused by insulin resistance, where the patients cells will no longer react properly to insulin. Because of this, type II diabetes is also known as “non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus”. Type II diabetes often occurs in adults, usually as a result of obesity and a lack of exercise.
- Gestational diabetes is a condition where a pregnant woman has a high level of blood sugar without being diagnosed with diabetes before the pregnancy. Similar to type II diabetes, patients with gestational diabetes do not properly respond to insulin, leading to elevated blood sugar. Gestational diabetes typically disappears after the baby is born.
Different treatment strategies need to be adapted for the different types of diabetes. Type I diabetes patients often require insulin injections, while some type II patients are able to maintain a healthy life style through changes in exercise and a diet. Although gestational diabetes is often resolved after giving birth to the baby, it is always taken seriously since it can cause severe problems to both the mother and the baby.
Would you like to explore the detection and diagnosis of diabetes with your students? Check out kit #280 – Detecting the Silent Killer: Clinical Diagnosis of Diabetes. Your students will examine two different methods to detect diabetes and then use their results to diagnose simulated patients.