Undiagnosed Diabetes Can Be Deadly, Study Shows

Diabetes medical report

More than 7 million people in the United States had undiagnosed diabetes in 2011, according to the American Diabetes Association. That’s a frighteningly large number of people who may experience severe complications — such as blindness, kidney disease, heart disease, high blood pressure and amputation — associated with diabetes because they did not take steps to control their disease.

And a new study published in the September issue of the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology has more bad news for patients who ignore the warning signs of diabetes. The researchers found that a third of deaths from diabetic ketoacidosis in Maryland were in people who were never diagnosed with diabetes.

Diabetic Ketoacidosis Can Be Fatal

Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs when the body burns fat instead of sugar (glucose) to produce energy. This can happen in people with untreated type 1 diabetes because they have little or no insulin to help with the absorption of the glucose in the bloodstream.

So, essentially diabetic ketoacidosis produces high levels of sugars and acids (ketones), and an accumulation of these can poison the body to the extent that a coma, or even death, can result.

Ketones and ketosis also have been in the news in recent years with the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets, such as Atkins and South Beach. When a person eats fewer carbohydrates, the body turns to its stores of fat to convert to energy, and ketones are produced. This can result in ketoacidosis.

Type 1 Diabetes vs. Type 2 Diabetes

In the diabetes study, 20,406 autopsies were reviewed and 107 people died from diabetic ketoacidosis. Only 92 cases had data available for review. Of those, about half of the deaths were in people in their 40s and occurred more often in men and African-Americans. Thirty-two of the 92 people had never been diagnosed with diabetes.

Until recently, type 1 diabetes also was called “juvenile diabetes” because people were diagnosed during childhood. But that is changing, as more adults are diagnosed with the condition.

However, it’s still far more common for adults to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. When a patient cannot control type 2 diabetes with diet and exercise alone, his or her doctor likely will recommend a medication, such as Actos. The widely prescribed Takeda Pharmaceuticals drug is designed to regulate the body’s glucose levels by making cells more sensitive to insulin.

But patients need to be aware that researchers have linked Actos (pioglitazone) to serious, life-threatening complications, including bladder cancer.