Diabetes & Sugary Drinks: Appalachia’s Silent Killer

PHOTO: Albert Herring
PHOTO Coutesy: Albert Herring

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My late-grandfather Jim was without a doubt one of the most sincere and kindhearted individuals ever to walk the streets of Logan, West Virginia.

One of five children, he, like so many other young men from his generation, left the mountains of home and joined the military.  Serving in the Cold War, he spent his early twenties looking down the barrel of a Russian tank in Berlin.

In the years that followed, he would return to the only place he ever called home, the coalfields of southern West Virginia, and start a family.  Money was scarce, but he somehow made a living selling insurance and moonlighting as a grocery store attendant.  The hours he worked were unconventional and sleep was often a luxury he couldn’t afford.

Sadly, I have no memories of him working.  The “Granddad Jim” that I knew was forced to go on disability prior to my birth (something I doubt his proud ego and instilled work ethic ever got over).

The man that I knew walked with a limp and was forced to inject insulin into his stomach prior to every meal.  A severe diabetic, his fingers were like leather from the thousands of times he pricked them each year.  Many an afternoon my grandmother would return home from work only to find him lying on the floor, sedated from either too high of a blood sugar reading or too low of one.

In the end, my granddad would succumb to his many health problems, never reaching his 59th birthday.  He never had the opportunity to do what he wanted more than anything else – put in an honest day’s worth of work, watch his grandchildren graduate or grow old alongside my grandmother.  He, like so many others, fell victim to one of Appalachia’s greatest killers: diabetes.

Sadly, the story of my grandfather is one that nearly every family in the hills of West Virginia, Kentucky and southwestern Virginia can relate – Round the clock working hours, limited access to healthcare, and terrible eating & drinking habits that date back for generations have all teamed to create a perfect and deadly storm.

Like so many others in the region, my grandfather was an addict.  Not to any illicit or “dishonorable drug,” but to one that proved to be just as deadly: Mountain Dew.

No longer is black lung the feared disease of mining communities, now the heart of Appalachian coal mining country is facing a new pandemic and one that is far more extensive in its reach.

Nationwide, only 15% of the population suffers from diabetes – the majority of which are over the age of 65.  But in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, roughly one in three people are estimated to be diabetic.  A startling reality when one takes into account the number of children suffering from the disease.

The numbers have become so stark that the Center for Disease Control has named the region “America’s Diabetes Belt.”

Far from being a health crisis, Gilbert Friedell told Salon that the Appalachian diabetes pandemic must be addressed on a community level, with a focus upon behavior: “We know what we have to do to prevent Type II diabetes and how to maintain a reasonable level of personal performance. We know these things. But, if we’re so smart, how come we haven’t fixed the diabetes problem? The answer is we’re still relying on individual approaches where it really requires community action and support.”

But what does this “community action and support” actually translate to?

Organizers of the “Strengthening Communities to Prevent Diabetes in Rural Appalachia” say that this can vary on a community to community basis.  “Local people understand the needs of their own community…” and in order to turn what seems to be an insurmountable tide, they argue, there must be a focus placed upon: Increasing local knowledge about diabetes and healthy lifestyle behaviors, creating healthy places for people to live, learn, work, and play, as well as identifying ways local policies can better promote healthy lifestyles.

Unfortunately, despite nearly a decade long campaign aimed at educating the region, the soft drink aisles in the local Wal-Marts are nearly three times the size of the average store in other regions — and as the drug pandemic continues to steal dozens of lives each night, the soft drink addiction quietly taking place right under our very noses is slowly killing our region’s children by day.

A lot has been documented about Southern West Virginia’s mass migration out of the state in recent years, but very little is being said about the other way our region is losing its population – we’re dying – and we’re dying faster than anywhere else in the nation.  The average American will live to be over 81 years old, but the average resident of West Virginia’s southernmost county of McDowell can only hope to see 72 years… one of the lowest life expectancies in the industrialized world and lowest in the entire nation.  Dozens of other Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky counties are a close second and the reality is this – until parents recognize the significance of the role they play in preventing this silent killer, another generation will miss out on an entire extra decade of life despite all of the advertising money being pumped into the region.

It’s time we as a people recognize that while we are fighting to save our friends, relatives and neighbors from the hells of cocaine, heroine, methamphetamines and prescription narcotics, may must also be careful not to become lax when it comes to our own diets.  We are what we eat and for far too many of us we are nothing more than a strange brew of  carbonated water, high-fructose corn syrup, sodium benzoate, erythorbic acid and a few other hard to pronounce concoctions.

A recently published study from Stanford Medicine suggested that “sugar may also have a direct link to diabetes. Researchers examined data on sugar availability and diabetes rates from 175 countries over the past decade. They found that increased sugar in a population’s food supply was linked to higher diabetes rates, independent of obesity rates…  The findings do not prove that sugar causes diabetes… But more sugar was correlated with more diabetes, and diabetes rates dropped over time when sugar availability dropped.”

Moderation is key, unfortunately, in the mountains of Appalachia,  moderation isn’t something that we tend to be very good at.

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  1. I gave up sweets a long time ago. I do not miss them except now and then my wife will bake a delicious low sugar cake. I came back to my home County for several years and saw many people with a sweet, high caffeinated soda in their hand. It seems that was the norm for these people. Most of them were young children and if with an adult the adult had one also. It is a learned behavior and also addictive because of the caffeine.

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