The Sugar Disease

I n the twenty-first century, amazing technology is helping doctors diagnose diseases. From genetic testing to scanning machines, technology lets doctors and technicians look inside the body in ways not possible only a few decades ago. For many centuries, however, doctors had to depend on their knowledge of the human body (which was extremely limited compared with today's knowledge) and their powers of observation.

Even thousands of years ago, doctors observed that some of their patients were always hungry and ate large amounts of food but still grew very thin, as though they were starving. They often felt weak and sleepy and even fell unconscious. Most important, they suffered from a horrible thirst that no amount of liquid could quench, and they had to urinate a lot— sometimes 10 or more quarts (9.64 liters) a day. In today's world, that amount would fill nearly five two-liter soda bottles.

Furthermore, doctors noticed that the urine of these patients smelled extremely sweet. Doctors in ancient India called it "honey urine" and saw "the attraction of flies and ants to the urine of those affected by this ailment."1 In seventeenth-century Europe, doctors tasted the urine of these patients and found it to be sugary. So, this illness came to be known as the Sugar Disease. Sadly, people with Sugar Disease died quickly because no treatment or cure for this mysterious illness existed.

We now call this illness diabetes mellitus, or simply diabetes. Although it is a very serious, potentially deadly disease, people who have it can live long, productive lives if they take good care of themselves. Thomas Edison, the creator of the lightbulb and many other inventions, had diabetes and lived to age eighty-four. Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the "Little House" books, lived until age ninety despite her diabetes. Many famous people today live well with this disease. Among them are actress Halle Berry and singers Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers and Elliot Yamin from American Idol. Even top athletes have diabetes, including Olympic swimmer Gary Hall, Chris Dudley of the New York Knicks, and Billie Jean King of tennis fame.

Actress Halle Berry is one of many celebrities that live with diabetes.

Actress Halle Berry is one of many celebrities that live with diabetes.

However, even though diabetes can now be managed, having the disease is not so sweet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, "Overall, the risk for death among people with diabetes is about twice that of people without diabetes of similar age."2 People with diabetes often die from heart disease, and they have a two to four times greater risk of stroke. Nearly three-fourths of adults with diabetes have high blood pressure or take drugs to control high blood pressure. Kidney failure, blindness, and blood circulation problems in the toes, feet, and legs (which can require amputation) are also common complications, particularly in people who are not able to control their diabetes well.

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