Urban radio legend Doug Banks’ untimely death shocked the nation. While his battle with diabetes wasn’t private, the illness claiming his life was still somewhat surprising. Estimates are that roughly 30 million people are living with diabetes in this country, and as many as one in four don’t know it.  Untreated diabetes is one of the leading causes of death and disability in this country and it is affecting our community at alarming rates.

In fact, as a community we are twice as likely to develop diabetes, suffer from complications, and die from the disease. This year alone we’ve lost too many legends to the complications of diabetes—gospel icon Pastor Daryl Coley, hip-hop pioneer Phife of A Tribe Called Quest and now famed radio jock Doug Banks.  Despite the fact that we all know someone affected by diabetes, many still don’t understand the devastation that this disease can cause.

Diabetes occurs when there is excess sugar in the blood either from a lack of insulin production, or the body’s inability to use the insulin properly. The results can be deadly. This disease is particularly dangerous because it can affect multiple areas of the body and damage vital organs when left untreated. At particular risk are the brain, heart and kidneys.

People with diabetes are at an increased risk for stroke. In simple terms, a stroke occurs when an area of brain tissue loses blood supply. This is due to the high blood sugar causing elevated cholesterol and damage to the blood vessels in the brain.  A similar process can occur in the heart leading to an increased risk of heart attack and heart disease.

Diabetes can also lead to kidney failure. When functioning normally, the kidneys are responsible for removing harmful toxins and waste from our bloodstream through the urine.  Over time, elevated sugar in the bloodstream can lead to chronic kidney disease. If left untreated, this can lead to kidney failure requiring lifelong dialysis or a kidney transplant to survive. An easy way to check for early signs of diabetes related kidney disease is a urine test to measure protein in the urine.

Diabetics are also at risk for life-threatening infection. When the blood sugar is high, wound healing is slow and the immune system is impaired.  As a result, infections in those with diabetes can be severe. Ranging from skin infections to pneumonia, infections can have devastating consequences including limb amputations, and the life threatening complication of infection known as sepsis.

In addition to diabetes having the potential to cause life-threatening injury, it can also cause lifelong disability.  It remains one of the leading causes of blindness in this country.  This is caused by the damage that high blood sugar over time can cause to the blood vessels in the eye.  Similarly, it can cause erectile dysfunction, nerve damage leading to chronic pain, gastrointestinal dysfunction, hearing difficulty and dementia.

The key to preventing the complications of diabetes is controlling the blood sugar. This begins with knowing your numbers. For most, maintaining fasting and pre-meal blood sugars between 80 and 120 mg/dl and an A1c of less than 6.5 is a great target. However, diabetics should always establish a safe target with their physician.  Near-normal blood sugars obtained through proper diet, exercise and/or medication for diabetes can prevent and even reverse some complications in many instances.

Not only can good blood sugar prevent complications, but it can also reverse diabetes in many cases.  Whether you are newly diagnosed or have lived with diabetes for more than 15 years, it is never too late to achieve and maintain healthy living.  Achieving a healthy lifestyle with diet and exercise is also essential for the estimated one in three adults who may be living with pre-diabetes (the precursor to developing diabetes) and are looking to prevent it.

For more information on the signs and symptoms of diabetes and how you can prevent it, visit the American Diabetes Association at www.diabetes.org.

Dr. Karla and Dr. Rob are the founders of Urban Housecall, a multimedia health and wellness resource, and also hosts of the Urban Housecall Radio Show.  For more from the doctors, visit their website at www.urbanhousecall.com, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter @urbanhousecall!