Updated Oct. 30, 2008 – Diabetes doesn’t care if you are young, rich or have a life. In that way, it is an equal-opportunity offender. On the other hand, as many experts note during National Diabetes Month, diabetes affects many more Blacks than Whites and takes most by surprise.
Just ask Randy Jackson, the “American Idol” judge who recently went public about having diabetes, a disease that causes a blood sugar or insulin imbalance.
"Diabetes snuck up on me. I didn't know I had it, and it was a huge wake-up call to get my health together," said Jackson, who has since lost 110 pounds and improved his diet to better manage the disease.
The journey to wellness for Phife Dawg’ of a Tribe Called Quest, however, hasn't been quite as smooth.
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Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in May of 1990, just after the April debut of a Tribe Called Quest’s first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” Phife told HipHopMusic.com., “I started having symptoms like using the bathroom frequently, like almost every half hour on the dot, and I was real thirsty, mouth dry and all that.”
Despite having watched his mother also struggle with the disease, the rapper born Malik Taylor admits to not changing his eating habits or consistently taking his medicine. He is currently on dialysis and on a waiting list for a pancreas and kidney transplant.
Both Phife and Jackson know all too well what can happen when diabetes goes untreated or undiagnosed. They are among a growing number of African Americans living with diabetes.
The latest statistics show that African Americans are nearly 70 percent more likely to have diabetes than Whites. In general, 3.2 million African Americans age 20 or older have the condition. One in four African-American women over age 55 also has diabetes.
But singer-songwriter Jackson, who was diagnosed with diabetes five years ago, hopes to encourage more people to get tested for diabetes because the disease, which blindsided him, can cause a host of diseases, such as heart disease, kidney failure, amputations, stroke, or worse, death, if left untreated.
"Heart disease is the No. 1 complication of diabetes, but there is a big awareness issue," said Dr. Stephen Clement, an endocrinologist and diabetes specialist at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death from type 2 diabetes – the most common form of the disease. Type 1 is called childhood diabetes, which is also growing rapid in America because of the rise in obesity, experts say.
Nearly 21 million children and adults have diabetes in the United States, and another 54 million are on the verge of developing the disease. If current trends hold, one out of every three children, and one out of every two minority children, will be diagnosed with diabetes in their lifetime, making diabetes one of the fastest growing diseases in America.
Type 2 diabetes comes from an insulin imbalance in the body, according to the AHA. Normally, food you eat is turned into glucose, or sugar, that the body uses for energy. Insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas, is needed to usher the glucose into the cells of the body.
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When the body doesn't produce enough insulin or doesn't use it efficiently, sugar levels build up in the bloodstream. These high sugar levels are the condition called diabetes, and high glucose levels in the bloodstream increase the risk for heart disease, Clement said.
Among its symptoms is dehydration, lack of energy and blurred vision, experts say. Other possible indicators include a high blood sugar level, high blood pressure and a cholesterol levels that show a high triglyceride count (or bad cholesterol) and a low HDL count (good cholesterol).
People with undiagnosed diabetes either fail to recognize the symptoms or do not take them seriously.
In Jackson’s case, he experienced symptoms of fatigue and dehydration, which are very typical of people who have diabetes. But, while he knew diabetes ran in his family, he never thought he would get it – until his health began to fail.
"I was feeling tired and dehydrated. I could not get enough to drink. I felt like I had a cold," he said. So, he went to the doctor, thinking he had a stress-related illness.
He was shocked to learn he had type 2 diabetes and began immediate treatment to lose weight and adopt a healthier lifestyle – keys to managing diabetes. His weight loss, which included gastric bypass surgery, combined with a healthier diet and regular exercise, as well as regular visits to his doctor, has allowed him to control his diabetes.
But Phife admits that he is paying a heavy toll for initially being careless with diabetes.
“For the last three years, I've been a dialysis patient," said the rapper, who gained weight as a result of his initial treatment but lost weight in the last seven months, mostly because of a new treatment regimen. “Initially, I weighed too much for my size and height, and now I'm where I need to be,” he told AllHipHop.com.
Each day, approximately 4,110 people are diagnosed with diabetes, and 613 people die from the disease. Among the more familiar of those living with diabetes are Academy Award-winning actress Halle Berry, Grammy Award-winning singer Patti LaBelle and former Philadelphia Sixer Darryl Dawkins.
There is no cure for the chronic disease, only management and treatment.
To turn things around after his diagnosis, Jackson, a Louisianan, gave up his beloved “Southern cooking,” a move, he admits, was “the hardest thing to change.”
To also stop others from being sucker-punched by diabetes, Jackson has joined with the American Heart Association in a program called The Heart of Diabetes. The initiative is designed to encourage people to pay attention to possible diabetes symptoms so that if they do have the disease, they can get treatment and help managing it early. (Here his message to others at I Know Diabetes.org.)
"Today, it is clear to me that regular check ups with a doctor, healthy food choices and an active lifestyle are extremely important for managing type 2 diabetes," Jackson shares at the IKnowDiabetes.org Web site. "Taking charge of my lifestyle and making a change to be healthier has made me a stronger, happier person."
Phife also offers this advice about diabetes: “It’s not a game,” he says. “You could lose your life…. You need to love yourself, love your life.”
To learn more about Diabetes, read "Diabetes Dos & Don'ts." And, to tell your story, visit IKnowDiabetes.org.