It’s rare for a week to go by without our hearing about the diabetes epidemic rattling the nation, but let’s take a closer look at what exactly the disease is and how much of a danger it really poses to our health.

Why Diabetes Strikes
When you eat certain foods, especially fruits, a type of sugar called glucose enters the bloodstream. After these foods are broken down and digested, this glucose (sugar) is what provides the body its fuel. But before this glucose can translate into usable energy, it has to make its way from the bloodstream into fat, liver and muscle cells.

That’s where the hormone known as insulin comes into play. Produced by the pancreas, the sole purpose of insulin is to regulate blood sugar (or, the amount of glucose in the bloodstream). Insulin does this by helping glucose move out of the bloodstream and into the cells.

When there is not enough insulin in the body or the insulin cannot properly perform its role, diabetes develops. As a result, there is too much glucose in the bloodstream, which we refer to as high blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes, the most common, is a progressive disease. It gradually worsens over time as high blood sugar destructs the eyes, kidneys, and/or nerves.

There are three types of diabetes: Type 1 (usually diagnosed before age 20), Type 2, and gestational (which starts or is identified during pregnancy).

The Stats
Some 20 million American adults and children have been diagnosed with the disease, according to the American Diabetes Association, and more than 40 million have prediabetes (meaning blood sugar levels are elevated above what is considered normal but not high enough to be diabetes). Diabetes affects about as many men as women.

What Does A Diabetes Diagnosis Mean?
Unfortunately, the development of diabetes cannot be taken lightly. That’s because stroke is up to four times more likely in people with diabetes than people without. Plus, death rates from heart disease are four times higher in people with diabetes than people without.

Not only does diabetes increase risk for heart disease and stroke, it can cause blindness (diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness in adults ages 20 to 74), kidney failure, and neuropathy, which is harm to the nerves.

Still, a diabetes diagnosis does not mean doomsday. Easy-to-do steps can be taken to help you manage the disease.