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Living With Type 2 Diabetes Is Family Affair

Family involvement is crucial to diabetes control.
WebMD Feature

To change the world is to change the family.

-- psychologist Virginia Satir

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Aug. 2, 2004 -- The world changes for people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It means big changes for their families, too.

How well families cope with these changes can mean the difference between rapidly worsening disease and a relatively healthy life. It's an opportunity for families to strengthen their relationships with each other and to improve every member's overall health.

But it's going to take work, says Susan H. McDaniel, PhD, professor of psychiatry and associate chair of the department of family medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, N.Y. McDaniel is the author of six books on family therapy, illness, and health.

"The family has to be involved in any chronic illness that has to be managed, but especially diabetes," McDaniels tells WebMD. "The illness demands are so great. The outcome is so uncertain. And the constant blood-sugar monitoring can be so stressful."

Like it or not, the family is automatically involved when one member has diabetes. But this involvement is not automatically a good thing.

"Family members can be resources and can be very supportive. They can also be a problem," McDaniel says.

Diabetes: A Family Illness

Three main things make type 2 diabetes a family illness:

  • Genetics. There's no single gene that gives someone diabetes. But there is clearly a genetic component to diabetes. And family members share the genes that predispose a person to diabetes. A diabetes diagnosis for one family member may mean that one or more other family members are also at risk.
  • Food. When the family is living in the same household, everyone usually eats the same kinds of food at the same table. Even after kids grow up and leave home, they tend to eat what their families taught them to eat. High-fat, high-calorie diets increase the risks of obesity which put people at risk for type 2 diabetes. It's always a good idea to eat lower-fat, moderate-calorie diets. When one family member has type 2 diabetes, his or her health depends on a radically different diet. This change is much harder if the family doesn't change, too.
  • Exercise. Sure, sometimes one family member gets plenty of exercise while everyone else sits on the sofa and watches TV. But when everybody else is a couch potato, it's hard for a person with diabetes to get the exercise he or she now desperately needs.

    "The person with diabetes sees everybody else eating what they always did, sitting around like they always did, and there is little incentive for her or for him to make these difficult changes," McDaniel says. "Diabetes means a change for everybody to a healthier lifestyle. Interventions that target the family are usually more effective than those targeted to an individual."

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