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Black Men and Diabetes: Preventing It, Managing It

African Americans have a 50% chance of developing diabetes, but most black men pay little heed to the warnings -- and pay the price. Fortunately, type 2 diabetes is both preventable and manageable.

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Brian (not his real name) had always been athletic in junior high and high school, but when he started to put on some weight in his mid-20s, he didn't worry too much about it. He didn't have time. Later, as a single man and small-business owner in his early 40s, Brian ate most of his meals in junk food at his desk and rarely exercised. He'd been diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol about five years earlier, but he paid little attention when his brother, a doctor, warned him that his weight and his family history of diabetes put him in a high-risk category.

Then he walked into his doctor's office weighing 330 pounds -- even at his 6'4" height, 100 pounds more than his ideal weight. When the doctor measured his blood sugar, it registered at a whopping 550 milligrams per deciliter, or about five times higher than normal. "You just don't see that kind of blood sugar," marvels Lenore Coleman, PharmD, CDE, founder of Black and Brown Sugar, a diabetes information web site for minority populations, and author of the forthcoming Healing Our Village: A Self-Care Guide to Diabetes Control.

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Brian, like millions of other black men, has type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is the fifth deadliest disease in the U.S., and it's hitting black communities especially hard. If current trends continue, black men will be facing an epidemic of diabetes by the year 2050.

  • Approximately 2.7 million or 11.4% of all African Americans aged 20 years or older have diabetes -- but at least one-third of them don't know it.
  • The average African American born today has a 50% chance of developing type 2 diabetes in his or her lifetime.

Why does diabetes hit African-American men so hard, and what can they do about it? "First, there's the obesity issue. Caucasians tend to have a different body image than African Americans; we don't feel like we're overweight when we're 30-60 pounds above our ideal weight," says Coleman, who is black.

"My patient thought he had a little too much around the middle, but he never considered himself morbidly obese, which he was. And like many black men, he lived alone and managed his own meals, which is a huge issue," she says. "If you're married, you tend to plan your meals more and eat a little better. African Americans also tend to eat a lot of fried foods, foods that are very high in carbohydrates, lots of sweets and sugars and starches." In fact, some studies have shown that African-American men eat fewer fruits and vegetables than any other demographic group.

When black men have diabetes, they're also much more likely to develop one or more of the serious complications associated with the disease, including amputation, kidney failure, blindness, and cardiovascular disease. For example, African Americans are 1.5 to 2.5 times more likely to have a limb amputated than are others with diabetes.

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If the level is below 70 or you are experiencing symptoms such as shaking, sweating or difficulty thinking, you will need to raise the number immediately. A quick solution is to eat a few pieces of hard candy or 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey. Recheck your numbers again in 15 minutes to see if the number has gone up. If not, repeat the steps above or call your doctor.

People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.

Congratulations on taking steps to manage your health.

However, it's important to continue to track your numbers so that you can make lifestyle changes if needed. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.

Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.

One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

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