Updated 28 February 2017

Could you have diabetes without realising it?

3.6 million South Africans have diabetes and many more are living with diabetes but aren't aware of it because they aren't experiencing symptoms. Know what's putting you at risk and why you should get screened.


While you may feel fine now, the scary truth is that you could be at risk of developing diabetes in future or worse, living with it right now without knowing!

The cost of diabetes

The estimated global cost to treat and prevent diabetes and its complications are expected to total at least US Dollar (USD) 376 billion this year. By the year 2030, this number is anticipated to exceed some USD490 billion.

There are 3.6 million South Africans diagnosed with diabetes but sadly, there are many more who are undiagnosed and untreated.

The Independent Community Pharmacy Association (ICPA) recently screened 10 000 South Africans for diabetes and found that one in three of the participants tested have a high risk for developing diabetes over the next 10 years.

Most sobering of all, perhaps, is that the number of people living with diabetes is set to outstrip those living with HIV/Aids in 20 years’ time should there be no intervention.

The majority of South Africans with diabetes have type 2 diabetes. Because type 2 diabetes doesn’t always cause obvious symptoms, many of us live for years with diabetes without realising it.

In fact, it is estimated that most diabetics have been living with the condition for seven years before they are diagnosed.

Unfortunately, this means that their blood glucose levels haven’t been controlled for all that time and as a result, as many as 30% of those that are newly-diagnosed are already experiencing serious diabetes-related complications such as nerve damage, circulatory issues, blindness and organ damage.

Read: 12 facts you should know about diabetes

Do you know your risk?

-  Having a family member with type 2 diabetes (parent, grandparent, sibling or aunt or uncle) puts you at an increased risk of developing the condition too.

- Eating a diet high in carbohydrate, particularly refined carbohydrate (bread, pasta, chips, pap, pies and fast foods)

- If you are obese you are at least 20 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes

- If you carry weight around your stomach or abdomen

- A lack of exercise/low levels of activity

- Smokers are 50% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than non-smokers

- People of all ages are at risk of diabetes but that risk increases with age

- 65% of people who have diabetes live in cities

Test yourself: What is your risk of diabetes?

I am at risk – what now?

All adults with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher, who are over the age of 45 or higher or have any of the risk factors listed above should be screened for diabetes at least every three years, according to the SEMDSA guidelines used in South Africa.

If you have had abnormal results previously or have multiple risk factors, your doctor may request more frequent screening.

The test involves pricking your finger for a sample of blood. It is quick and causes very little pain. Many pharmacies, clinics and medical aids offer free diabetes screenings as part of their services.

Use Health24's BMI Calculator

Take action to prevent diabetes!

Healthy eating is an important part of managing all types of diabetes. So much so that it is the theme of World Diabetes Day this year.

70% of type 2 diabetes can be prevented through a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and a well-balanced diet, the International Diabetes Federation explains. 

Focus on including more of the following in your diet:

- Fresh fruit and vegetables

- Whole grains

- Lean meats and poultry

- Low fat milk and dairy products

- Seeds, nuts, legumes

- Plant oils

Try to cut back on or completely avoid the following foods:

- Refined carbohydrates

- Processed meats

- Foods high in sugar

Read more:

15 ways to prevent or manage diabetes

Type 2 diabetes and diet

Treating type 2 diabetes


Ask the Expert

Diabetes expert

Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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