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Diabetes prevention programs see high results in preventing the disease

Mike Hansel was in for a rude awakening when he discovered he was pre-diabetic.

His blood glucose level was above a normal level, which put him at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

"It wasn't until I got the blood test that I said, 'Oh crap, now I've got to do something about it,'" said Hansel, an 65-year-old retiree from Lake Elmo.

Until then, diabetes hadn't been on his radar, but the results of his blood test were a wake-up call, he said.

After considering the toll the disease would have on his life, Hansel enrolled in HealthEast's diabetes prevention program called I Can Prevent Diabetes. The yearlong course encourages older, overweight adults to reduce the risk of becoming diabetic by changing their diets and adding physical activity to their routines.

This fall, Hansel reached his goal of losing 14 pounds — or 7 percent of his body weight — and said he has more energy and will soon find if the program helped when he undergoes another diabetes screening.

Type 2 diabetes afflicts about 30 million Americans, killing two people every five minutes and racking up billions of dollars in health care costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

What's become more alarming for public health officials is the number of people who are at high risk of developing the disease, which may see more diabetes cases.

Roughly 80 million people are pre-diabetic, according to the CDC, which means their blood glucose levels are higher than normal but below the level of type 2 diabetes. Most people are unaware of the condition until it's too late.

In part due to the success of similar courses offered by providers like HealthEast and organizations like the YMCA, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) announced this spring that it was moving to expand diabetes prevention programs to cover 44 million Medicare patients.

U.S. sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., have been leading this effort to address these concerns when they secured additional funding for a national diabetes prevention program as part of the the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

HHS found that combining diet and exercise led to a decline in the number of people who developed diabetes through a review of diabetes prevention pilot programs across the country. The effort has also shown to save an average of $2,600 for Medicare patients and saw 70 percent of participants older than age 60 avoid the affliction altogether.

The biggest change Hansel has noticed since completing the HealthEast course is his discipline in maintaining his walking schedule and turning down food if it pushes him above his daily calorie goal.

The class outlines the importance of healthy eating while informing people of both the health factors associated with diabetes, such as an increased risk of developing heart conditions, stroke, kidney failure and blindness, among others.

For what seems like a simple solution of diet and exercise, it can be difficult for some people needing to make wholesale lifestyle changes, HealthEast public health nurse and prevention class coach Muriel Olson said.

For 16 weeks, participants met weekly with Olson at Guardian Angels Church in Oakdale. They were told to keep a daily food and exercise diary, and after four months, the group meets monthly and is expected to keep up with their plan for the remainder of the year.

Hansel said he felt the group setting, as well as Olson's guidance on exercise plans for those with certain physical limitations, helped him and other participants clear some of the obstacles and support each other.

Though Hansel said it took him longer than expected to meet his goal, the regular encouragement from his wife and others helped.

"You learn there's going to be setbacks and you just keep going, and if it takes a little longer, it's better to get there eventually then not get there at all," he said.

Because a large focus of the class involves weight loss for people classified as overweight, those who are at a normal weight can still benefit from physical activity and a healthy diet, as well as undergo diabetes screenings, Olson said.

"Diabetes has always been around, but the outlook is we'll have many more people with diabetes," she said. "If we can prevent it and prevent the complications, that would be wonderful."

More information about the I Can Prevent Diabetes program is available at

The Woodbury YMCA is also enrolling participants for a new class starting Nov. 21, with a grant covering much of the costs. Anyone interested in the Y's program can contact Ann Schulte at 612-465-0595.