What is diabetes? 

“Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar. Hyperglycaemia, or raised blood sugar, is a common effect of uncontrolled diabetes and over time leads to serious damage to many of the body's systems, especially the nerves and blood vessels,” explains the World Health Organization (WHO). 

There are two types of diabetes: type 1, which is an autoimmune disease which interferes with a person’s ability to make insulin and regulate blood glucose levels; and type 2, in which people develop a decreased sensitivity to insulin and no longer make or use as much as is needed. The former is less common and is managed through insulin treatments, use of the drug verapamil, and implantable devices. The latter is more common and is more easily treatable. It can also be prevented and reversed through healthy lifestyle changes. 

While diabetes is a medical condition, its prevention, treatment, and care are multidisciplinary. Here are some fields you can study to help in the battle against diabetes. 

1. Medicine

Diabetes impacts many parts of the human body. As such, while primary care doctors are the main source of care for people with diabetes, an entire team of specialists is usually involved, starting with endocrinologists. Endocrinology is the branch of medicine that deals with the endocrine glands and hormones. While these specialists cover many different conditions, diabetes is one of the primary ones they treat. Other members of the diabetic healthcare team may include ophthalmologists, podiatrists, and dentists. 

2. Mental healthcare

Psychologists and other mental health practitioners can also provide vital assistance to people with diabetes. For example, a recent study revealed college students with diabetes experience especially high levels of diabetes stress. For people struggling with a diagnosis of diabetes or with managing the condition, seeing a mental health professional who specializes in diabetes psychology may be an invaluable lifeline. 

3. Nutrition & fitness

Diet is critical to maintaining diabetes health. Yet many people with diabetes have questions about what they should and should not be eating. Because of this, it is recommended nutrition therapy should be a component in the overall treatment plan of every person with diabetes. In particular, medical nutrition therapy (MNT) provided by a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) can facilitate optimal outcomes by providing patients with the practical tools they need to delay or prevent the complications of diabetes.

The same applies to fitness. Research shows a moderate diet combined with exercise can play a significant role in diabetes management and prevention. In fact, intensive lifestyle interventions are just as important as medication when it comes to preventing and treating type 2 diabetes.

Researchers in the fields of nutrition and fitness are also positioned to make a difference in the lives of people with diabetes. For example, researchers recently determined there to be a link between vitamin D deficiency and type 1 diabetes.  

Expertise in nutrition and fitness can also prepare you for another critical role given the awareness imperative to diabetic health: becoming a diabetes educator. Independent diabetes consultant Ginger Kanzer-Lewis, RN, BC, EdM, CDE, recently told Monster.com of the fulfillment she derives from working in this area, “Next to my family, diabetes education has been the most satisfying, fascinating thing I’ve ever done. It allows you to make an impact on other people’s lives. There is no other disease in which patients decide if they will do well. It is phenomenal to watch patients realize that they are in control of their own destiny.” 

4. Technology

Technology has transformed the healthcare industry, and also the face of diabetes care. New and improved treatment options are constantly emerging designed to improve convenience, enhance precision, and support better self-management of blood glucose levels. Diabetes Self-Management recently rounded up 10 diabetes technologies to watch in 2019, including advanced insulin pump systems and digital platforms for diabetes data management and education. 

5. Engineering

Engineering innovation is also advancing the boundaries of diabetic care. For example, scientists at MIT are currently working on a cure for diabetes that will protect the cells that produce insulin from the body’s immune system, which happens in type 1 diabetes. Chemical engineering associate professor Daniel Anderson explains of the invention, “What we developed is basically a new material that acts like an invisibility cloak. It coats the cells but allows them to function and live but protects them from the immune system.”

Meanwhile, a team of engineers from NUI Galway, in Ireland, recently introduced the world’s first drone insulin delivery system, aimed at improving access for people with diabetes who either live in remote locations or are isolated by severe events. 

Diabetes threatens millions of lives, and it’s on its way to becoming “the biggest epidemic of the 21st century,” according to the International Journal of Health Sciences. If you would like to lend your knowledge, skills, talent, and passion to the fight, pursuing studies and a career in one of these fields can help you make a difference in defeating this insidious disease.