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James Whitfield Reed, M.D., M.A.C.P., F.A.C.E. - Atlanta, Georgia
Need another reason to attend your regularly scheduled doctor appointments -- even when you're not sick or symptomatic? Diabetes, one of the most serious diseases to impact the African American community, initially causes no pain.

"The average person with diabetes has the disease for eight years prior to being diagnosed," said Dr. James Whitfield Reed, a professor of medicine and chief of endocrinology and metabolism at Morehouse School of Medicine. "Twenty to 25 percent of diabetics already have complications at the time of diagnosis."

Diabetes, a disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin and, therefore, cannot convert sugar, starch and other foods into energy, is at epidemic levels in the United States, according to Reed. Obesity, another American epidemic, shares a clear-cut connection to the disease.

"Eighty-five to 95 percent of all type 2 diabetes diagnoses stem from obesity, and type 2 diabetes makes up 95 percent of all cases of diabetes," Reed said. "If you have a genetic predisposition to diabetes and your lifestyle is conducive to the disease, you will develop it. If you improve your lifestyle, you'll improve your chances of not developing the disease."

Reed said diabetes has three classic indicators -- frequent urination, increased appetite and increased thirst. "These are all subtle signs," said Reed. "The biggest indicator is if a person has immediate family members with the disease. If so, he or she should be screened at least once a year."

The earlier the diagnosis, the better chance a person has at avoiding complications such as blindness, kidney failure, heart disease and stroke. Diabetes also is the leading cause of nontraumatic amputations in the United States, said Reed.

"Diabetes is a very complex disease requiring a lot of patient knowledge," Reed said. "People need to know they play a part in managing their disease. The better-educated patient is the easier patient to treat."

The American Diabetes Association reports that 25 percent of African Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 have diabetes. However, said Reed, there are steps a person can take to prevent the disease, such as maintaining a proper diet and exercising adequately -- at least 35 minutes of leisure-time activity four days per week.

"Once you have diabetes, treatment is absolutely necessary - but so is proper diet and exercise. These are preventative actions, as well as effective treatments," Reed said. "Medication is a second-line treatment."

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