HOUMA Louisiana ranks first in the nation for the number of deaths from diabetes, and local health officials say rich Cajun meals and sedentary lifestyles are partly to blame.
'Here in Louisiana a lot of people are affected by diabetes; the numbers are always climbing,' said Holly Dufrene, a registered dietitian and diabetes coordinator with the Medical Team health center in Houma.
Diabetes is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. The death rate for diabetes in Louisiana was about 35.5 deaths per 100,000 people compared to 23.3 deaths for the nation as a whole in 2006. Deaths from diabetes numbered 1,536 in Louisiana that year.
The information comes from a National Center for Health Statistics report released this month that shows how states compare when it comes to the leading causes of death in the United States, including diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, stroke, flu, chronic respiratory disease, accidents, Alzheimer's disease and sepsis, a fatal response to infection.
But there's more bad news. Including diabetes, Louisiana ranks in the top 10 for eight of those leading causes of death.
Louisiana ranks first in the nation for kidney-disease deaths, fourth in the nation for deaths from septicemia, an inflammatory response to infection, and fifth in the nation for cancer deaths. Louisiana ranks sixth in the nation for accidental deaths and deaths from Alzheimer's disease. And the state ranks ninth in the nation for deaths from strokes and heart disease.
Mae Hitt, a diabetes educator and community outreach coordinator at Oschner St. Anne General Hospital in Raceland, said lifestyle and obesity rate are two factors that lead to Louisiana's reputation as an unhealthy state.
From 1990 to 2008, the obesity rate increased from 12.3 percent to 33.9 percent of the population, contributing to Louisiana's ranking as the unhealthiest state in the country by the United Health Foundation.
'Many of our health problems are the result of the lifestyle we lead,' Dufrene said. 'A lot of activities revolve around food, and those are high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods that can lead to people becoming overweight or obese.'
Diabetes is a particular problem in Louisiana, Hitt said.
About 10 percent of the state's residents have been diagnosed with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
In 2006, the total cost of diabetes to Louisiana in health-care expenses was about $2.4 billion, according to the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and young adults, and was previously known as juvenile diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin, a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes. In type 2, either the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells ignore the insulin.
Diabetes can be controlled with medicine, meal planning and exercise. But not managing diabetes can have serious consequences. Dufrene calls these the 'uglies of diabetes.'
Uncontrolled diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in adults, and can cause kidney failure and the need to go on dialysis treatments. Diabetes can also lead to cardiovascular problems, because people with diabetes have an increased chance of heart disease and stroke, Hitt said.
Diabetes can also lead to vascular and circulation problems. The body also has a harder time fighting off infections, causing wounds to heal poorly. Diabetes is the most frequent cause of non-traumatic limb amputations.
But the good news is that diabetes is a manageable illness if people are willing to educate themselves and take control, Dufrene said.
'Education, healthier lifestyle and knowing what your blood sugar is doing are important,' Dufrene said. 'If a patient accepts their diagnosis and is willing to do something about it, these complications are preventable.'
You don't have to deny yourself the south Louisiana cuisine you love, but eating less and getting exercise can help diabetic patients tremendously, Hitt said. Also, with type 2 diabetes rates in children climbing, it's important to teach them healthy lifestyles.
'One of my adult diabetes patients told me she didn't have anyone to exercise with, but she had a 12-year-old daughter,' Hitt said. 'I told her to get out there with her daughter, hula hoop, ride bikes, do whatever. The key is it's important to find something you enjoy. It's also important to teach your kids to be healthy.'