Stopping a Killer: Diabetes leads as one of Arkansas’s most preventable causes of death

Published: Jan. 30, 2022 at 6:43 PM CST
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JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - Diabetes is one of the leading causes of death in Arkansas, but it’s also one of the most preventable.

According to a 2021 study, more than 13% of Arkansans have been diagnosed with diabetes; that’s 3% more than the nationwide average. Those numbers are even higher for people of color.

Candice McKing is one of many Arkansans diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which makes up 90 to 95% of all cases.

She found out she was diabetic after a visit to the Endocrinology Department at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital.

“Since being diagnosed, I can’t lie, at first, it was like terrifying to me,” said McKing. “I actually found out here in the office. Coming to talk to the dietician here about healthy ways of different diets and things like that, I then found out I was a diabetic.”

Unlike Type 1 diabetes, which is genetic, Type 2 could be prevented nearly 80% of the time.

Valari Landrum is a nurse practitioner in endocrinology at NEA Baptist. She works with patients on ways to control their illness.

“Preventative measures would include a healthy lifestyle,” said Landrum. “So lifestyle changes that would reduce your risk of developing diabetes includes a healthy diet, decreasing the carbohydrates that you eat, having a more balanced diet.”

Landrum said diabetes also requires a lot of self-management from the patient.

“Some of the things that we really emphasize with our patients when they’re not seeing us is to manage their diet, stay physically active, exercise, maintain a healthy weight or get closer to a normal weight, and also, of course, medication management,” said Landrum.

For McKing, the hardest thing since her diagnosis in 2021 has been a change in lifestyle.

“Just thinking about sweets and stuff, because when you say diabetic, the first thing that pops in your head is sweets,” said McKing. “You think, well I can’t eat that anymore. And it’s not really that, it’s just you have to eat them in proportions, the right proportions.”

Understanding how to manage diabetes is a key factor in preventing the disease from getting worse.

That’s where Landrum and the endocrinology department come in.

“In addition to our endocrinology department, we do have a diabetes education center here at NEA Baptist, and they are focused on managing diabetes. Helping with lifestyle changes, medication management, and also diet,” said Landrum.

If left unchecked, diabetes can lead to serious health issues.

“Complications with diabetes can lead to stroke, heart attack, a diabetic eye disease which, if it goes untreated, could lead to blindness. And also chronic kidney disease, which could lead to renal failure and dialysis,” Landrum said. “And, of course, death.”

These complications are a large part of why diabetes is one of the leading causes of death in Arkansas.

In a 2017 study, diabetes was ranked as the seventh leading cause of death in the state. Arkansas was ranked third in the nation for diabetes-related deaths in that same study.

One of the reasons diabetes might be so prevalent in Arkansas is a gap in proper healthcare. Specifically for those in rural communities.

“We know that there is a direct correlation between socio-economics and healthcare accessibility,” said Landrum.

NEA Baptist is one local healthcare provider working to bridge that gap.

“We’ve had so many advances in healthcare that now there’s telehealth medicine that is allowing rural areas to connect with specialties,” she said. “I think the biggest thing that we can stress is to make sure you have a primary care provider that can refer you to different specialties when you need that assistance.”

People with lower income are also at greater risk for developing diabetes.

According to The United Health Foundation, people with an income of less than $25,000 a year are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than someone who earns $75,000 a year.

“Just having the means to manage many of the chronic illnesses, including Type 2 diabetes, hyperlipidemia, which is cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Those three things combined greatly increase the risk of developing those complications related to diabetes that we talked about,” said Landrum.

Diabetes is one of the most expensive chronic diseases to maintain.

The American Diabetes Association shows those with diabetes have 2.3 times more health care costs.

For patients like McKing, having access to the endocrinology department and the diabetes education center has helped her manage her diagnosis.

“Coming here has helped me a whole lot with learning the different ways of dieting and eating in proportions and not going overboard with it,” said McKing. “I actually exercise more; I pay attention to my health more. I have four children. I want to be here for them.”

There are many Arkansans, though, who struggle to maintain their diabetes for a number of reasons.

“Statistics have shown us that people with diabetes that do not have health insurance have 60% fewer office visits and are prescribed 52% fewer medications than people with insurance coverage,” said Landrum. “But, they have a much higher rate of emergency room visits.”

Lack of access to healthy foods, education on diabetes and healthy lifestyle changes, and the cost of the illness are all reasons someone might not be able to control their diabetes.

“The best thing to do is to establish care with someone and have just a regular annual visit where they can do blood work to also monitor for any changes on that end,” said Landrum. “Those lifestyle changes that we mentioned are very vital in managing your diabetes, and those are things that you can do without us being there.”

Professionals in the field are hopeful there will be changes in the next few years to reduce the risk of this chronic disease for all communities.

“Not just being in this field, but also being a person of color in this field, I know the impact that diabetes has in our community.,” said Landrum. “And I would just like people to be more comfortable with coming forward and having us manage their diabetes.”

You can learn more about the endocrinology department at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital by clicking here.

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