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Thwarting a Silent Killer

August 27, 2000

In 1991 about one in eight Americans was considered obese. By 1998 the number had increased to nearly one in five, with consequences that can now be seen to include a sharp rise in the incidence of diabetes, a disease closely linked to excessive weight.

A new federal study reports that in the last decade diabetes among people in their 30s rose by a startling 70%. Among those in their 40s the increase was almost 40%; for those in their 50s it was 31%. Dr. Frank Vinocur of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rightly describes this trend of adult-onset diabetes occurring much earlier as "very disturbing." It is especially so since a lot of diabetes seems plainly to be preventable.

Americans in general tend to eat too much, especially of the wrong foods, and exercise too little. A diet that largely shuns fatty fast foods and includes generous servings of fruit, vegetables and grains is associated with lower incidences of not only diabetes but heart disease and some cancers as well. Consistent exercise is a proven method of weight control and contributes to better all-around health.

But modern American life, with omnipresent fast food, television and computers, promotes sedentariness in both children and adults. Specialists warn that the new numbers on diabetes may underestimate the problem. In its early stages diabetes may display few symptoms; perhaps one-third of diabetics are unaware that they have the disease.

The long-term consequences of diabetes can be physically devastating and financially costly. It is a leading cause of blindness, kidney failure and limb amputations, and it greatly increases the chance of heart attack.

Obesity and inactivity have become serious matters of public health. Sixteen million Americans have diabetes, at an estimated cost to the economy of $98 billion a year. A national information campaign--perhaps modeled on successful anti-tobacco programs--about the risks associated with diabetes isn't just warranted but urgent. Education should start earlier, and the natural place to begin is in the schools.

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