April 15, 2014

Type 2 Diabetes: Understanding the Past, Present, and Future

Overview

Type 2 diabetes, also referred to as adult onset diabetes, is the most common form of the disease and one of the leading health issues facing the world.  But it isn’t a new problem, and it has been recognized for thousands of years.  Understanding a bit about the history of type 2 diabetes can help shed some light on the overall scope of the problem and provide new insights into the future of its treatment, as well.

The Disease

First, a quick explanation of the disease is a good idea.  Type 2 diabetes involves the body’s inability to properly use insulin.  It can be caused by a number of different factors including genetics and family history, but is often brought on by obesity, lack of exercise, poor diet, and other lifestyle habits.  Patients dealing with type 2 diabetes will often find relief in regular exercise, a healthier diet, as well as some medications and even insulin injections.

An Ancient Problem

Ancient Egyptian texts dating back to 1550 BCE makes mention of ‘passing too much urine’, a common symptom associated with diabetes.  The disease was actually diagnosed and named in the sixth century BC by an Indian physician named Sushruta, who called it ‘Medhumea’, meaning ‘sweet urine disease’ since it was diagnosed by whether or not ants were attracted to the urine of an afflicted person.  The sweetness of urine in diabetics was also noted by the ancient Chinese and Japanese, referring to it as the ‘sugar urine disease’.  Sushruta was even more ahead of his time in that he correctly linked the problem to obesity and an inactive lifestyle and recommended exercise to help cure the problem, facts that were proven centuries later by modern medicine.

Diabetes received the name it is now known by in the first century CE from the Greek physician Aretaeus.  His description of the disease also made note of the excessive amount of urine that made its way through the kidneys and gave the disease its name.  Scholars assume that the famous physician Hippocrates never mentioned the disease in his writings because he felt it to be an incurable death sentence, an assumption backed up by Aretaeus’ description of life with diabetes as being ‘short, disgusting, and painful’.

Further descriptions were noted in medieval Persia, detailing the collapse of sexual function and the increased appetites in sufferers.  Avicenna, a Persian physician during this time, also described diabetic gangrene and made an herbal remedy that reduces the creation of sugar, one so effective that it is still used today to deal with the disease.

The Modern World

The full extent and understanding of diabetes really only arrived in the nineteen hundreds.  While a link was made in 1889 between the pancreas and diabetes, it was in 1910 that it was discovered that the pancreas produced the chemical responsible for maintaining blood sugar levels.  This chemical was given the name ‘insulin’.  Researchers and doctors began to experiment with this knowledge, and by 1922 the first injections of insulin were given to a diabetic patient.  The researchers who discovered this process were awarded the Nobel Prize and released insulin to the world without trying to restrict the usage of their discovery for profit.

It wasn’t until 1935 that Roger Hinsworth made the declaration that there were actually two types of diabetes, separating diabetics into those who were sensitive to the insulin in their bodies and those who were not.  The realization sprung from the fact that insulin injections were proving to be largely ineffective among certain sufferers of diabetes.  The issue was dealt with by taking larger insulin doses until the fifties, when medications were slowly introduced that could help the body better process and use insulin.

Diabetes Developments

Over the last few decades, numerous advances have led to the simpler management of both types of diabetes.  In 1961, for example, the thick reusable needles and syringes designed to be used over and over again were replaced with smaller, less painful disposable needles.  Glucose meters first made their appearance in 1969, making it easier than ever to monitor blood sugar levels.  One of the major advances came in 1980 when synthetic human insulin was introduced.  Up to that point, all insulin was based largely on animal derived insulin.  Since its introduction, this synthetic insulin has become the norm.

The Future

While there is still no cure for type 1 or type 2 diabetes, the future does hold hope for diabetics.  As modern medicine continues to evolve, numerous developments will unfold.  Just the advances over the last several years hold proof of this.  Needles are shrinking ever smaller, now so tiny that the pain of injections is minimal.  This holds true for glucose monitors as well, and a tiny finger prick is all that is needed to check your sugar levels.  Even the infamous insulin pumps, large units introduced in the seventies and designed to mimic the human body’s production of insulin, have been all but replaced by simple pills taken to control insulin production.  These developments, combined with the country’s increased focus on proper diet and exercise, can help to prevent and control type 2 diabetes like never before.

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