FAIRBANKS - Diabetes increased 27 percent among Alaska adults from 2000 to 2004, according to the state epidemiology office, continuing a trend first noted in 1995.
The trend is likely to continue, Alaska health officials said, as Alaskans fall into the same health traps as the rest of the United States.
"It's this lifestyle element of our society that's really doing a lot of harm," said Julien Naylor, director of the Alaska Native Medical Center's diabetes program. "And it's increasing."
Naylor, speaking at the University of Alaska Fairbanks last week, said lifestyle changes such as inactivity and unhealthy food choices, coupled with increasing meal portion sizes, have contributed to the increase in obesity.
The changes in American diet and lifestyles have contributed to the approximately 20 million Americans that have Type 2 diabetes, she said. Of those 20 million, it's estimated that 6 million people have not been diagnosed.
Those numbers are expected to increase. About 41 million Americans will be diagnosed with diabetes in their lifetime, Naylor said. If the trend continues, Americans born in 2000 will have a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes.
In Alaska, 21,024 adult Alaskans reported they had been diagnosed with diabetes in 2004.
Diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar starches and other food into energy. It can be a direct cause of death or lead to complications causing death.
Naylor said it is difficult for Americans accustomed to recliners and super-sized fast-food meals to change their ways.
While there are fewer numbers of Alaska Natives with diabetes compared to other groups, there is a greater increase in Natives developing diabetes, Naylor said. American Indians and Alaska Natives born in 2000 will have a 1-in-2 chance of developing diabetes if the trend is not reversed.
Programs to address diabetes in Alaska Native populations, especially in rural areas, have sprung up across the state, including nutrition campaigns and summer activity programs for children.
Naylor said those types of locally organized programs will be the best defense against a growing epidemic.
"'Think globally, act locally,' that is what will turn this around," she said. "But it will not turn around quickly."