What veterans should know about diabetes

MSU Extension has type 2 diabetes prevention and self-management programs for veteran communities.

A group of veterans in a garden, picking vegetables.
Photo: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Marc Cuenca.

Developing type 2 diabetes can be a serious health concern for veterans and their family members. Type 2 diabetes is a health condition that affects the body's ability to use blood sugar (glucose) for energy. After eating, food is broken down into glucose and enters the blood. A hormone (insulin) is then released, which allows the body’s cells to use glucose for energy. However, with type 2 diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin, or the body's cells ignore the insulin. This leads to increased glucose in the bloodstream. Signs of untreated type 2 diabetes include blurry vision, excessive thirst, fatigue, hunger, frequent urination and/or weight loss. Over time, a person living with type 2 diabetes can increase their risk of heart attacks, strokes, nerve damage, kidney disease, and vision loss.

Type 2 diabetes affects over a tenth (34.2 million) of all Americans. This rate is more than doubled among veterans (25%), who are at a higher risk due to service-related chronic pain, joint damage, and exposure to herbicides such as Agent Orange. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), “veterans who develop type 2 diabetes mellitus and were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service do not have to prove a connection between their diabetes and service to be eligible to receive VA health care and disability compensation.” Benefits may extend to surviving family members of veterans who died due to herbicide-related type 2 diabetes. For more information, veterans and their families can contact the Agent Orange help line at 800-749-8387, or explore the Agent Orange exposure and VA disability compensation page.

Risk factors for Michigan veterans

As of 2017, over 70% of all Michigan veterans were over age 55, putting many within the “at-risk” category for type 2 diabetes. In addition to older age, other non-controllable factors such as genetics or family history may increase one’s risk. However, many risk factors, such as obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, and unhealthy eating habits, can be addressed through lifestyle choices. An additional risk factor is gestational diabetes, which has been shown to increasingly impact pregnant veterans with a PTSD diagnosis. Awareness of one’s risk factors is important. Addressing controllable factors can reduce one’s overall risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommends the following four healthy behaviors to increase longevity, improve quality of life, and reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes:

  1. Eat fruits and vegetables (at least five servings a day) and otherwise follow a healthy diet.
  2. Get 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise (aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities).
  3. Do not smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products.
  4. Get an annual medical check-up.

MSU Extension offers a variety of health and nutrition programs that can help community members looking to prevent and/or manage type 2 diabetes. These include:

Dining with Diabetes: A five-session self-management series where participants explore and taste foods prepared from diabetes-friendly recipes. Topics include healthy eating, being active, monitoring, taking medications and reducing risks. 

Diabetes Personal Action Toward Health (PATH): A six-week self-management workshop for people living with diabetes. Participants learn how to deal with the symptoms of diabetes, increase physical activity, plan meals and eat healthily.

National Diabetes Prevention Program: A yearlong evidence-based program for “at-risk” individuals that provides support, encouragement and information to participants.

For more information about type 2 diabetes prevention or management programs and resources (articles, classes and events), explore MSU Extension’s Diabetes website at www.canr.msu.edu/diabetes.

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