Ask a Medical Professional: Diabetes Myths and Misconceptions
By Catherine Marschilok, M.S.N., C.D.E., Board Certified in Advanced Diabetes Management
We all know a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes (T1D) is hard on families as they learn to cope with a number of changes in their daily life. While people care, it is all too common for them to ask questions that reflect a lack of knowledge about T1D, such as, “When will she outgrow it?” It can be frustrating to explain the battle that all families face every hour of every day, and that can be compounded by having to deal with people’s common misunderstandings and misperceptions, including the widely-held belief that T1D is not a serious disease. Here are some of those myths:
myth: Taking insulin cures diabetes.
fact: Taking insulin keeps people with T1D alive, but does not cure the disease. While progress toward finding a cure has been substantial, there is still no cure for diabetes.
myth: Diabetes is caused by obesity, or eating too much sugar.
fact: While obesity has been identified as one of the “triggers” for type 2 diabetes, it has no relation to the cause of type 1 diabetes. Scientists do not yet know exactly what causes T1D, but they believe that both genetic and environmental factors are involved. Eating too much sugar is not a factor.
myth: With strict adherence to a specific diet and exercise plan, and multiple insulin injections each day based on careful monitoring of blood sugar levels, a person with T1D can easily gain tight control over his or her blood sugar levels.
fact: While the above strategy is the most effective way to achieve and maintain tight control of blood sugar levels, optimal blood sugar control can be very difficult for some patients. Many factors, including stress, hormone changes, periods of growth, and illness can easily cause blood sugars to swing out of control. Teenagers, in particular, may be susceptible to this problem, as their bodies go through many changes during adolescence. Also, some people with type 1 find that even though they strive for tight control and follow their meal plan and insulin schedule, they still experience rapid fluctuations in their blood glucose. Those fluctuations do not mean the person with diabetes has done anything wrong.
myth: People with diabetes should never eat sweets.
fact: Limiting sweets will help people with T1D keep their blood sugar under control, but, with advice from their doctor or nutritionist, sweets can fit into their meal plan, just as they would for people without diabetes. And there are times when sweets are a must: If the blood sugar level drops too low, sweets (or juice, or soda) can be the surest to raise it, and prevent the onset of hypoglycemia.
myth: People with diabetes can’t participate in athletics.
fact: Physical exercise is important for everyone’s health, and is especially important for people with diabetes. Regular exercise helps lower blood sugar levels and keep them in the target range. There are countless examples of athletes who have had great success, from Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer Gary Hall to ice hockey great Bobby Clarke.
myth: Only kids get type 1 diabetes.
fact: Type 1 diabetes, formerly known as “juvenile” or “juvenile onset” diabetes, is often first diagnosed in children, teenagers, or young adults. However, people may develop T1D at any age.
myth: Kids don’t get type 2 diabetes.
fact: Though type 2 diabetes is usually diagnosed in adulthood, increased obesity and other factors have led to a recent “epidemic” of this form of diabetes in young adults and children under 10. Still, most children diagnosed with diabetes get T1D.
myth: Women with diabetes shouldn’t get pregnant.
fact: Thanks to advances in diabetes research, the outlook for pregnant women with diabetes is significantly better today than it was a generation ago. However, diabetic pregnancy requires extra effort and commitment, excellent blood sugar control, and education in all areas of diabetes management.
myth: No matter what you do, a person with diabetes for years will eventually get complications.
fact: Complications are not inevitable. The mechanisms that cause complications are not yet fully understood, and the extent to which they develop varies from person to person. Tight blood sugar control is the only method demonstrated to reduce the risk of developing complications, but their occurrence remains unpredictable in any individual. Some individuals with T1D may be genetically predisposed to develop complications (one of the critical issues being addressed by JDRF’s research).