Sticking it to diabetes

Learn how to control the chronic disease at any age

May 01, 2010|By MARIE GILBERT
  • Lisa McCoy, center, a registered dietitian with the Washington County Health Department, talks with Potomac Towers residents Janet Cosgrove, left, and Robert Churchey, right, about the benefits a good diet can have on diabetes.
Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

Little about diabetes is straightforward.

It assaults all races and all classes.

For some, it's genetic. For others it's a mystery.

It can increase your chances of developing heart disease or having a stroke.

It causes damage to the nervous system and poor circulation.

And it's the No. 1 reason adults go blind.

There is no cure for diabetes - a condition that allows excess sugar to build up in the blood and exact ferocious damage throughout the body.

But it is manageable. For some diabetics, it can be controlled with a change in lifestyle - eating a healthier diet and increasing activity.

For others, a pill or insulin becomes part of their daily routine.

And, while diabetes doesn't know age discrimination, over the past few decades, the rate of new cases among the older population has accelerated.


According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), more than 23 percent of Americans age 60 and older have diabetes.

An estimated 50 percent of adult onset diabetes (Type 2) occurs in those over 55 years of age.

In addition, seniors are far more likely to have complicating conditions from diabetes, including kidney problems and high blood pressure.

Lisa McCoy, a registered dietitian with the Washington County Health Department, isn't surprised by the statistics.

"I've certainly seen the numbers grow locally - not just among seniors but people of all ages," she said.

The numbers have risen so dramatically, she said, that Washington County ranks in the top three counties in Maryland for diagnosed cases of diabetes.

While diabetes has many risk factors, age is certainly one of them, McCoy said.

But more than a third of older people with diabetes don't even know they have the disease, according to the ADA.

"Screening is important in diagnosing diabetes," McCoy said. "And many seniors may not go to doctors, especially because of restricted finances."

Others may not have the symptoms commonly associated with diabetes, such as a tingling in the arms and legs, fatigue and increased thirst.

In addition to those who don't know they have diabetes, McCoy said there are many people who are in denial.

"They hear the word diabetes and they become afraid," she said. "They're afraid of needles and insulin and no longer being able to enjoy their favorite foods. My best advice to them is that you don't have to give up everything. Your life is not drastically going to change. But with necessary changes, you're going to live longer."

Get moving

McCoy said she conducts pre-diabetes classes at the Washington County Health Department, which are intended to help people reduce the impact of diabetes.

"Research has shown that an increase in physical activity - 150 minutes a week or 30 minutes for five days - can help your body fight diabetes," she said. "Also, studies have shown that if you lose 7 percent of your body weight, you can make significant changes in your health."

But when it comes to physical activity, McCoy said many senior citizens may be more challenged than their younger diabetic counterparts. That doesn't mean they have to spend time in a gym.

"Just moving around, even arm chair exercises can make a difference," she said. "Walking is probably the best exercise. You do what you can do - 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there, another 10 minutes later. At least it's something instead of nothing."

McCoy said as people age, their metabolism slows down and that makes losing or maintaining weight more difficult.

"But it's not impossible," she said. "You just need to move."

Eat for life

When it comes to food, McCoy said, many seniors face another challenge.

"What they need to eat and what they are eating are often two different things," she said. "If they live alone, they're probably not fixing proper meals. Or, maybe they're not motivated to fix a meal at all."

If you're diabetic, McCoy said the importance of a regular eating schedule can't be overstated. Also important is portion control.

"You don't need to fill up a large dinner plate with food," she said. "What you can fit on a salad plate is probably an appropriate sized meal."

Find support

McCoy said she has been offering a diabetes support group for the past seven years on the second Wednesday of each month, alternating between Potomac Towers and Walnut Towers in Hagerstown.

"When I first started the group, I might have five or eight people," she said. "Now I average about 20 to 30 people each month. I'm not sure if the numbers can be attributed to more cases of diabetes or people taking a more active approach to good health. Maybe both. But more people are taking advantage of the opportunity to learn more about managing their diabetes."

McCoy said the group sessions are designed to educate individuals with diabetes and to give them support in knowing they are not alone. Meetings are open to the public and usually feature guest speakers who discuss a wide range of topics, from glucose monitoring to wound care.

The group also learns how to prepare healthy meals and snacks with take-home recipes.

"I try to help them take what they've learned and apply it at home," she said.

The next support group meeting will be on Wednesday, May 12, beginning at 1:30 p.m. at Walnut Towers in the eighth-floor community room.

McCoy said having diabetes is not the end of the world.

"The first step is being properly diagnosed by a doctor," she said. "Then you make the necessary changes and life goes on. I tell people they can still have that birthday cake. Just maybe not as generous a portion."

If you go ...

What: Diabetes Support Group

When: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 12

Where: Eighth-floor community room, Walnut Towers, 12 S. Walnut St., Hagerstown

Contact: Lisa McCoy, Nutrition and Wellness Services, at 240-313-3304, TTY 240-313-3391

More: The program will be on "Healthy Eating and Carbohydrate Counting" presented by Lisa McCoy, registered dietitian with the Washington County Health Department

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