Diabetes is becoming a worldwide epidemic.

In advance of last week’s World Health Day (April 7), the World Health Organization (WHO) released some alarming statistics that can affect us all: The number of adults with diabetes has quadrupled worldwide in under four decades to 422 million.

That figure is expected to more than double in the next 20 years.

Published in The Lancet journal, these findings were based on one of the largest studies to date concerning diabetes trends, drawing on data from 4.4 million adults in different global regions to estimate the age-adjusted diabetes prevalence for 200 different countries. As the study highlights, the disease is becoming a particularly major problem in poorer regions.

Pointing to aging populations and rising levels of obesity around the globe, researchers said that diabetes is becoming “a defining issue for global public health.”

Type 2 diabetes – a long-term disease characterized by insulin resistance – can lead to kidney failure, blindness, heart attacks, stoke, and lower limb amputation. Type 2 now accounts for around 90 per cent of all diabetes cases worldwide.

The study found that, between 1980 and 2014, diabetes has become more common in men than women. It also found that the rate of diabetes has risen significantly in many low and middle-income countries, including India, China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Mexico and Egypt. Half of the world’s adults with diabetes in 2014 lived in five countries: China, India, the United States, Brazil and Indonesia. These, of course, are also the five most populous countries in the world.

Rates of Diabetes across the globe (wikimedia)

The regions with the largest increases in diabetes rates were the Pacific island nations, followed by the Middle East and North Africa.

What the study didn’t find was any noticeable decrease in diabetes prevalence in any country.

The data revealed that northwestern Europe has the lowest rates of diabetes among women and men. The rat  here in Canada are also relatively low.

The WHO says that governments worldwide must make it a priority to encourage their citizens to make healthy choices. “If we are to make any headway in halting the rise in diabetes, we need to rethink our daily lives: to eat healthily, be physically active, and avoid excessive weight gain,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director-general, in a statement. “Even in the poorest settings, governments must ensure that people are able to make these healthy choices and that health systems are able to diagnose and treat people with diabetes.”

The fear is that rates of the disease are now becoming insurmountable in countries that don’t have the resources to manage it.

According to researchers, the estimated global cost of diabetes is $825 billion USD annually. In Canada in 2014, the cost of diabetes to the health system was $8 billion USD, according to CBC news.

The increase in rates is attributed to the factors typically associated with diabetes: higher intakes of energy-dense foods like fried starches and lower physical activity among people who move to urban areas and settle into less active lifestyles.

It’s obviously time we start taking the disease more seriously than ever (unlike this Starbucks employee who recently wrote “Diabetes here I come” on a drink).

In positive diabetes-related news, however, Scientists in Switzerland have just found that excess fat could be programmed to produce insulin. It has now been proven possible to take stem cells from the body fat of a 50-year-old man and coax them into insulin-producing beta cells by adding new genetic code.

Unfortunately for the world’s disadvantaged, this news of course makes little difference.

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