After battling high blood sugar for more than 20 years, Tom Hanks has now “graduated” to type 2 diabetes, the Oscar-winner announced on The Late Show with David Letterman.
His doctor held out hope that the disease might be reversed, telling the actor that if he shed enough pounds to “weigh as much as you did in high school, you will essentially be completely healthy and will not have type 2 diabetes,” Hanks stated.
However, the actor doubted he could achieve that goal. “And I said to her, 'Well, I'm gonna have type 2 diabetes,’ ” added the 57-year-old star of Captain Phillips, telling Letterman that in high school, he weighed “96 pounds” and “was a very skinny boy.”
Speaking exclusively to Yahoo! Movies on Tuesday, Hanks took an optimistic tone. "Hey, I don't have Type 1 diabetes! Type 1 diabetes is a really, really serious thing. I don't have that. I have high blood sugars, and Type 2 diabetes is not going to kill me.”
"But I just have to eat right, and exercise, and lose weight, and watch what I eat, and I will be fine for the rest of my life,” added the star.
What’s ahead for Hanks? And is it possible to actually reverse type 2 diabetes, the world’s most common chronic disease, by slimming down?
To find out, I talked to Dr. Betul Hatipoglu, an endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic, and Dr. Bradley Bale, medical director of the Heart Health Program for Grace Clinic in Lubbock, Texas, and a specialist in heart attack, stroke, and diabetes prevention.
Newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes is potentially curable in 65 to 70 percent of cases—often without drastic weight loss—says Dr. Hatipoglu. “In some cases, the magic number to defeat this monster can be losing as little as 5 to 10 pounds, and for other patients it could be 35 pounds or more.”
Dr. Hatipoglu also added, “Losing 6 to 10 percent of your body weight—combined with regular exercise for 150 minutes a week—helps tremendously with type 2 diabetes and can even turn it around in many newly diagnosed patients.” Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease, cannot be reversed with weight loss, however.
Even if an obese patient can’t achieve his or her ideal weight, any drop in pounds can make a difference, she adds.
Lifestyle changes, including weight loss, exercise, and a diet that is low in processed carbs (like baked goods and white bread), are both safer and more effective than drugs for preventing and reversing diabetes, adds Dr. Bale.
“All of these healthy changes help treat the root cause of type 2 diabetes—insulin resistance—but published studies show that regular exercise trumps all other treatments, including medication, in preventing or even reversing the disease,” reports Dr. Bale.
Currently, there are no FDA-approved drugs for diabetes prevention, but in clinical trials, two medications—metformin and Actos—have both been shown to significantly decrease the risk that prediabetic patients will progress to full-blown type 2 diabetes. However, both doctors emphasize that lifestyle changes are the most effective way to ward off or reverse type 2.
When the body becomes insulin resistant—a problem that is most likely to occur in people who are overweight, sedentary, smoke, or eat a poor diet—the beta cells of the pancreas are forced to crank out more and more insulin to process sugar from food.
Like assembly-line workers who have to continually meet ever-higher production quotas, the beta cells eventually become exhausted, and blood sugar starts to rise, which happened to Hanks when he was 36 years old.
Without effective treatment, insulin resistance typically progresses to full-blown type 2 diabetes in 10 to 20 years or more, says Dr. Bale. “At this point, the beta cells have lost 90 percent of their function, but they are not dead.”
That means there is potential to reverse the disease and get the beta cells back to work, if type 2 is caught early. The longer someone has diabetes, however, the less likely it can be cured.
An old operation—gastric bypass surgery—is new again with the groundbreaking discovery that it can reverse type 2 diabetes. The operation helps obese people slim down, by converting the stomach into a tiny pouch and rerouting the digestive tract so food enters the intestines at a lower point than usual.
Weight-loss surgery has such potential to revolutionize diabetes care that the Cleveland Clinic hailed it as the number one medical innovation for 2013. “What’s fascinating is that patients are often diabetes free the day after surgery, when they have only lost 2 or 3 pounds at most,” says Dr. Hatipoglu.
Why does bypass surgery have such a potent effect—independent of weight loss?
“Studies suggest that both drastic calorie restriction and changes in gut hormones due to rerouting the digestive tract may contribute to this effect. Since surgery is a drastic, last-resort treatment when lifestyle changes and medication fail, researchers are now looking into whether calorie restriction alone or other medical therapies could accomplish the same thing—without surgery, says Dr. Hatipoglu.
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