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Phylicia Rashad Takes Diabetes To Heart

By Adele Slaughter, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

August 28, 2002 - As Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Phylicia Rashad was the imperturbable center of the Huxtable universe. But her father's death, in 1983, unsettled her world, bringing home to her the harsh reality of diabetes-related heart disease.

"Like many people in our country there is a history of diabetes in my family," says Rashad. "My father had to take insulin as my grandfather did. We never made the connection between cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. When my father died and I looked at his death certificate, I was shocked to see that it read 'cardiac arrest due to hypertension from diabetes.'"

Last May, Rashad launched the Take Diabetes to Heart awareness campaign to inform Americans about Type 2 diabetes and its link to heart disease. The program is being promoted by the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC) and the American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE). GlaxoSmithKline is funding the ABC and AADE awareness campaign for which Rashad is financially compensated.

"I'm learning a lot while doing this awareness campaign," says Rashad, two-time Emmy nominee and winner of the People's Choice Award. "For example, studies indicate that diabetes is showing up more and more in younger people, it's not just a disease of elderly people."

Generally, Type 2 diabetes develops later in life, although with an increase in childhood obesity, America is seeing more and more children with this form of the disease.

In Type 2 diabetes, the most common type of diabetes, the body either under-produces insulin or the cells resist insulin. Insulin is a hormone that takes sugar from our blood into our cells for energy. When glucose builds up in the blood instead of energizing the cells, it causes many consequences including energy-starved cells and high blood sugar levels.

The American Diabetes Association estimates that over 15 million Americans, about six percent of our population, have diabetes. African-Americans are almost twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. The ABC maintains that 2.8 million African-Americans and two million Hispanic/Latino-Americans have diabetes.

Hidden epidemic

"I have also learned that Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease," says Rashad. "Sometimes people don't really have any symptoms. They think they feel great and haven't been diagnosed as having diabetes when in fact they do."

In fact, the ADA estimates that about one third of people with the disease remain undiagnosed.

"There is an epidemic of diabetes going on in America," says Dr. Malcolm Taylor, President of the ABC. "Obesity tends to induce diabetes. African-Americans tend to have a higher prevalence of diabetes along with Latino-Americans. None-the-less, all Americans are at an increased risk because we are overweight."

"Many people have a condition we call insulin resistance syndrome long before they develop diabetes," adds Taylor. "This is a pre-diabetic condition."

Signs that might imply a patient has insulin resistance and is in danger of developing diabetes include:

  • Obesity
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Elevated glucose
  • Elevated cholesterol

"My father died when he was 63 years old," says Rashad. "He was a dentist who stood on his feet all day, every day, taking care of people. He did not have a program of physical activity, when he came home in the evenings he was pretty tired. He ate his meal. Then he'd lie down and eat ice-cream, cookies, and potato chips and watch television until he fell asleep."

"My father was taking insulin," adds Rashad. "The myth is that some people think that they can eat these things and that if they double up on their insulin or take a little bit more, it's okay. But it won't take care of it."

"Once people have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes," says Rashad, "they can ask their doctors to direct them to diabetes educators who can suggest things to do to promote a healthier lifestyle."

Most doctors recommend a five-point health plan that can significantly reduce a person's risk of developing diabetes:

  • Exercise for half an hour daily
  • Loose 5% of your total weight -- if you are overweight
  • Reduce total calorie fat by 30%
  • Cut saturated fat by 10%
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

Heart of the matter

"The problem we see at ABC is that diabetes is a disease of the heart," says Taylor. "The number one cause of death for diabetics is cardiovascular disease: heart attacks, strokes, and vascular complications. Patients worry more about their eyesight, loosing a limb, and getting on dialysis. We want diabetics to know that their greatest risk of dying is their hearts."

Diabetes can promote clogging the arteries to the heart, or coronary heart disease.

"Having high blood glucose is almost like having a diffuse inflammation going on in your body," says Taylor. "If you add on that you may have elevated cholesterol or you may be a smoker, then that magnifies your risk. Of course, if you're a smoker, it significantly raises your risk for heart failure."

Many diabetics don't realize that maintaining normal levels of glucose will minimize many of the complications of diabetes. A normal blood sugar level is between 70 and 120 mg/dl. Other common complications from diabetes include:

  • Impaired vision
  • Renal (kidney) failure
  • Damage to the nervous system
  • Bone fractures
  • Amputation

Taylor urges diabetics to ask their doctors to administer a hemoglobin A1C test, which is a way of assessing of what the patient's glucose has averaged over a 90-day period.

"Studies show that by lowering your A1C test you can lessen your risk of complication," says Taylor. "The scale is from 1 to 12 with normal at less than 6. We want diabetics to be less than 7. For every point they drop, they lessen the risk for blindness, or neurological complications from diabetes."

"We think that children should know their grandparents and become great grandparents themselves," says Dr. Waine Kong, Chief Executive Officer for ABC. "Because our grandparents so frequently die prematurely, many children never experience that nurturing experience."

Rashad, who is opening in Blue this Friday, August 30th at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, takes all her roles to heart.

"Diabetes is very serious," says Rashad. "There are serious risk factors involved for complications, but it is manageable and with aggressive management, a person can live a very healthy life."

For more information about heart health, click here.


Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.


Created: 10/30/2002  -  Adele Slaughter and Stephen A. Shoop, M.


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