What precisely has happened in the last 50 odd years that has turned this condition into a veritable scourge? The whole western world, but particularly Maltese people are afflicted more and more frequently with diabetes. Statistical data relating to whole populations show that around 10 per cent of persons overall suffer from this condition. But much more relevant is the fact that as we grow older we are more likely to become targets for this condition. In fact, by the age of 60 it would not be an exaggeration to say that half of us will have diabetes.
Like most diseases, the causes for diabetes are both genetic and environmental. We Maltese have certain genes which make us more susceptible than many other races. We cannot help that: we cannot choose our parents! On the other hand, there is a strong environmental component that allows the genes to express themselves, allowing diabetes to make its appearance. Top of the list is a diet rich in pasta, bread, cakes, pastizzi and sugars, which puts an unbearable strain on our body’s capacity to digest properly. Added to this and equally important is our reluctance to do any exercise whatsoever. It has been proven that exercise is the one most important factor (together with diet) to prevent diabetes from developing.
There is no need to emphasize the dire effects of this disease which has now reached epidemic proportions. Advanced cases result in problems with vision, eventually leading to blindness. Other patients suffer from kidney disease. There is always the danger of damage to blood vessels from what is known as ‘atherosclerosis’, which consists of accumulation of fatty substances, including cholesterol in the arteries. This in turn leads to a reduction of blood supply to the tissues. Sometimes this leads to ‘gangrene’, that is death of tissues, particularly toes and even the whole foot.
Diabetes can remain undetected for a long period of time because for several years there are no symptoms. Damage is, however, accumulating and eventually some of the above symptoms make their appearance, by which time the damage is done and there is nothing that can be done to undo it.
It is, therefore, essential not to wait until major symptoms appear before one takes preventative action. There is no excuse for not doing this, because diagnosis is relatively easy. Testing for the levels of sugar in the urine, or even in the blood, is now a very simple matter which takes a couple of seconds. In more advanced cases, testing for protein in the urine is also useful because it indicates kidney problems.
So the recommendation is not to delay: have yourself examined early. Remember that the chances of getting diabetes at the age of 60 is around fifty-fifty, and much higher if other members of the family also have been diagnosed with diabetes.
Can you prevent getting this disease at all? Unfortunately we cannot change our genes, our inheritance is what we are, but we certainly can take steps to delay the inevitable by taking certain precautions.
The most important thing is to drastically cut down on our intake of food, particularly those dishes most dear to us Maltese, pasta, fats, sugars, pastizzi. This could be difficult but not impossible.
Secondly, and crucially, we have to change our habits and increase the amount of exercise we do every day. Television is the biggest enemy here: To be a couch potato is the best invitation for disaster. Go for a half-an-hour brisk walk every day: that will definitely have a beneficial effect on your health.
The Maltese Community Council of Victoria is currently having discussions with Victoria University to find ways in which this message is passed on to the general Maltese public. In a preliminary survey carried out by the MCCV it was found that the prevalence of this condition among Maltese in the 60-75 age group was nearly 60 per cent. This emphasizes the need to ensure that all persons of Maltese background are well aware of this condition from as early an age as possible.
In conjunction with Victoria University, the MCCV is undertaking a familiarisation program aimed particularly at persons of the second generation who are now approaching their middle age and therefore have reached a stage where diabetes is likely to become manifest. It is hoped that research in this area will be of benefit to the Maltese community in Victoria.