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Fit For You: Milwaukee's Diabetes Epidemic

Approximately 40% of people in Milwaukee are at high risk for developing diabetes - 14% higher than the WI state average.

Public health leaders talk about diabetes in epidemic terms. In Milwaukee alone, 40% of people are at high risk for developing diabetes, which is 14% higher than the state average.

The direct and indirect costs of diabetes in Milwaukee County alone is nearly $1.2 billion annually. The average medical expenses for a person with diabetes are $13,700 per year, according to the American Diabetes Association - approximately 2.3 times higher than people without diabetes.

But, what exactly is diabetes?

"Diabetes is a group of conditions that is basically an interference with the insulin that helps the glucose get into your cells for energy usage," Laura Rooney says. She's vice president of Milwaukee YMCA's Healthy Living.

  • Type 1: Typically diagnosed in children and young adults, effecting only 5% of people with diabetes. Your body cannot produce enough insulin, and people with type 1 must have insulin through injections or a pump to survive.
  • Type 2 (most common): The body cannot use the insulin its producing effectively. Blood glucose levels rise higher than normal and the body cannot make enough insulin to regulate it, resulting in cascading effect of ill-health conditions.
  • Gestational: Usually a temporary circumstance where high blood sugar levels develop during pregnancy. Occurs in a small percentage of pregnancy and goes away after pregnancy. However, women who have had gestational diabetes are at an increased risk of developing type 2 later in life.

Why are Milwaukeeans more prone to developing this disease - especially Type 2 diabetes?

Certain factors, including lack of exercise, decreased overall movement, food choices, lack of food availability, and genetic factors,  have lead a high number of Type 2 diabetics in Milwaukee.

"We do have a lot of strong cultural heritages in Milwaukee that influence food choices based on tradition, what we like to eat, how we eat. Which are all great in moderation, but can sometimes be taken to excess," says Rooney.

There is a clear scientific link between food choices and diabetes. "The quick choices...lead to the size increases, and we know that that is linked to what we are seeing in increases in overweight, obesity, pre-diabetes, and diabetic prevalence," she says.

Another major factor in developing diabetes is one's work environment. In addition to sitting for long periods of the day, employers may not be fostering a healthy living environment for their own employees.

What can be done to decrease the risk?

"We have a tremendous opportunity to help people hit this before the onset," says Well City Milwaukee director Gail Bennett. "If we help people see ahead of time that they might be pre-diabetic, we could help them stave off the onset of this devastating disease."

Well City Milwaukee and the Metropolitan Milwaukee YMCA are two organizations on the front lines of the effort to reverse the growing trend of diabetes in the workplace. Both are leading initiatives to aid employers in encouraging healthier practices for employees around the city - such as creating walking paths, walking groups, subsidized fruit, and educational and exercise programs.

However, no matter how many programs a company provides for their workers to encourage healthy living, it ultimately takes social support to make the effort a success. "I think one of the things that hinders individuals from wanting to learn how to make changes even if they want to do it, is this sense of shame or this sense of stigma that goes along with learning you might have pre-diabetes or learning that you have diabetes," says Rooney.

Bennett stresses that with 90% of the Milwaukee population at risk for pre-diabetes, we should all be thinking about the issues and trying to prevent it not only in ourselves, but the people around us.

"This is about us...and that's why a group of employers coming together to cheer each other on in wellness programs is what everybody needs," says Bennett. "We all need each other to stay healthy and encourage each other to make healthy choices."

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.