Guest writer Len Elikhis from AIA New Zealand explains what diabetes is to raise awareness of the condition.
Diabetes is a common condition that affects about 250,000 Kiwis and over 500 million people worldwide. It describes a group of conditions affecting the body’s ability to make or use insulin, a hormone that allows glucose in the blood stream to be absorbed by cells in our body to make energy.
Without enough insulin, glucose can build up in the blood stream and cause long-term complications, like heart disease, vision problems, and even challenges with poor mental health. For this reason, some people with diabetes are treated with medicines to help control their blood sugar levels.
What are the two types of diabetes?
There are two main types of diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes accounts for about 5-10% of cases and is thought to be caused by an autoimmune reaction where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the pancreas stopping it from producing insulin. Type 1 diabetes can develop at any age but usually occurs in children. Like other types of autoimmune conditions, we don’t yet have a good understanding of how it might be prevented.
Type 2 diabetes accounts for about 90% of cases and is caused by genetic and lifestyle risk factors that impact the body’s ability to use the insulin it produces. For many people – but not all – type 2 diabetes can be prevented, improved, or reversed through diet and exercise. Type 2 diabetes usually affects adults, although increasing childhood obesity rates are responsible for a worrying rise in childhood cases.
Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a steep rise in the number of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes coinciding with a broader trend of lifestyle-related health challenges.
What breakthroughs have there been in treating diabetes?
Whilst the outlook remains concerning, there have been some important breakthroughs in our ability to improve the condition.
Virta, an American health care company, has developed a successful programme based around a sustainable transition to a low carbohydrate diet. Foods rich in carbohydrates – such as bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes – are a key source of energy and nutrition but are broken down into glucose.
For those people whose bodies have trouble absorbing glucose, a low carbohydrate diet is an effective way to reduce blood sugar. A clinical trial looking at the impacts of the Virta programme showed that after two years, participants experienced significant improvements in their blood sugar levels with more than half meeting the criteria for diabetes reversal, 67% of diabetes-specific prescriptions were discontinued, and 91% of patients who began on insulin reduced or eliminated their insulin dosage.
The success of the Virta programme is not only based on the insight that diet can impact health outcomes but its ability to help participants take that insight into action.
Closer to home, social enterprise PREKURE has been busy training health coaches and developing health management programmes to address the growing burden of chronic disease and mental ill health.
At AIA, our purpose is to help people live healthier, longer, better lives by encouraging them to make positive lifestyle changes. Earlier this year, AIA had the opportunity to partner with PREKURE to pilot its 12-week diabetes programme for some of AIA’s customers.
The programme comprised of:
short online lessons on diabetes management, low-carbohydrate eating guides, and lifestyle fact sheets;
one-on-one health coaching sessions to help participants set their goals; and
group coaching sessions where participants came together to share their success and challenges.
By the end of the 12-weeks, we were delighted to see that all participants who voluntarily submitted their health data achieved a reduction in their blood sugar levels. In addition, 50% achieved a clinically significant reduction (i.e. > 5mmol/L reduction in HbA1c), and all lost weight (5.2kg average weight loss and 4.2cm average reduction in waist circumference).
The results of the pilot with PREKURE – together with our AIA Vitality programme – highlight the opportunity for insurers to play a role in improving health outcomes and reducing the impacts of chronic disease.
I would like to thank those people working in the health sector providing care to people living with diabetes. I would also like to acknowledge the need for urgent and innovative action to prevent, improve, and reverse the condition.
Len Elikhis is the Chief Product and Investments Officer at AIA New Zealand and co-chairs the Financial Services Council's Health Insurance Committee.
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