Diabesity: The New Epidemic

Last Wednesday, Bob Gabbay, co-director of the Penn State Institute for Diabetes and Obesity addressed an attentive audience of over 100 people at the Penn State Downtown Theater Center. The topic: the rapidly rising incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Gabbay began by describing why he sees "diabesity"—the combination of type 2 diabetes and obesity—as a tsunami. "In the last decade, the number of people with diabetes has doubled," he noted, "and rates of the disease are expected to continue increasing."

The real danger of this increase, Gabbay explained, is that serious complications can occur if blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure levels are not kept in check. He added that 90 percent of diabetes patients do not have these levels under control. "Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, and amputation, and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke two to four times," he said. Looking ahead to the "tidal wave" of predicted new cases, he asked, "What will the costs be? How will we care for all these people? It will overwhelm our medical system. We simply can't do it."

The United States is not the only country suffering from a diabesity epidemic, Gabbay added. "Particularly in the developing world, the numbers are really shooting up. If you look at China and India, they're going to completely explode in the next generation. It will threaten any economic plans that those countries have if they don't get a handle on the diabetes problem."

Penn State researchers, noted Gabbay, are working on "changing the social environment" so that eating well and maintaining healthy activity levels are seen as more socially desirable. He mentioned a social networking Web site being designed for people with diabetes. "It would allow members to problem solve, share ideas, and support each other," he said.

Gabbay's deepest concern? The prevalence of type 2 diabetes among young children. "One out of three babies born today will develop diabetes," he said, pointing to dramatically increased portion sizes and decreased physical activity as major factors in an explosion of childhood obesity. "You can already detect changes in teens' arteries in terms of atherosclerosis risk and heart disease," he said. "What used to be heart attacks occurring in the 50s and 60s will be happening in the 30s and 40s." As a result, said Gabbay, the current generation may be the first in modern history with a shorter life expectancy than its parents.

Asked about the possibility of drug therapies for weight loss, Gabbay explained that "the challenge for all of these drugs is going to be the safety profile, because they will be available to so many people." One attendee wondered if there was one food that he could eat three times a day to keep his body healthy. "I don't know of any magic foods," he answered, but shared that a Mediterranean diet—one that is rich in fish, nuts, whole wheat, vegetables, fruits, and includes a modicum of red wine—was found, in one study, to decrease the risk of developing diabetes by two-thirds.

Another audience member asked about the causes of obesity. Gabbay's answer was simple and sensible: "It's really an equation of how much energy you take in—how much food you take in—and how much you burn off. Fundamentally it comes down to those two pieces."

Join Research Unplugged on Wednesday, October 27, for our next conversation: "Immigration: Rights and Wrongs," featuring Shoba Wadhia, Director of the Center for Immigrants' Rights at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law.

For more about Bob Gabbay, read on...

Last Updated October 26, 2010