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Could you have diabetes and not know it?

Consumer Reports News: February 12, 2009 10:43 AM

Here's a statistic that bears repeating: an estimated 40 percent of adults with diabetes don't know they have it. That's 4 in 10 people with the disease who are not getting treatment that could prolong their life and protect them from many serious health problems, such as blindness, kidney failure, amputations, heart disease, and stroke. Wow.

This estimate comes from a new study by researchers with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Researchers used two tests to accurately gauge the blood sugar levels of more than 2,200 people in a large study on health and nutrition. (Most other studies have used only one test, which may not detect as many cases.) In the study, nearly 13 percent of adults age 20 and older had diabetes, and 40 percent of them had not been diagnosed. Virtually all those undiagnosed had type 2 diabetes, which usually starts later in life and is more common in people who are obese.

Diabetes was especially widespread among seniors, affecting nearly one-third of people 65 and older. Researchers also found that an additional 30 percent of adults had pre-diabetes, which means their blood sugar was high but not yet in the diabetes range. People with pre-diabetes are at increased risk of getting diabetes as well as having heart attacks and strokes.

So could you have diabetes and not know it? Here are some common symptoms of the disease (see What are the symptoms of type 2 diabetes? for more detail):

  • Needing to urinate more often  
  • Feeling very thirsty 
  • Feeling very hungry or tired 
  • Losing weight.

But not everyone gets these symptoms and people with pre-diabetes often don't get any. This is why testing blood sugar levels can be so important. Experts say everyone over age 45 should be tested. You should also ask your doctor about testing if you have risk factors for diabetes and pre-diabetes. These include:

  • Having a family history of diabetes
  • Being overweight or inactive
  • Being a member of a high-risk group (for example, African American, Hispanic/Latino American, American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander) 
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having low HDL cholesterol or high triglycerides
  • Having developed diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes)
  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Having acanthosis nigricans (dark, thickened skin around you neck or armpits).      

What you need to know. There's no cure for diabetes, but treatments can help you live a long, healthy life. So if you're at all concerned you might have diabetes or pre-diabetes, be sure to see your doctor.

Sophie Ramsey, patient editor, BMJ Group has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use. 

See our Ratings for blood-glucose meters (subscribers only), read more on living with and treating diabetes in our Treatment Ratings (subscribers only), and for savings on diabetes drugs, see our free Best Buy Drugs report.

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