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Type 2 diabetes grows as public health threat

In just a decade, the number of Americans diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes more than doubled to 14.7 million. NBC's Robert Bazell reports on the growing public health threat.

Every day the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center is busy — with new and returning patients. 

Director Dr. Robin Goland says its is a major problem in every hospital.

"Ten percent of patients on a medical service in a hospital have diabetes," she says. "Fifty percent of patients on a vascular surgery service have diabetes."

Diabetes is the inability to metabolize sugar properly — so it builds up in the blood. Type 1, a genetic disease that usually strikes in childhood, is not increasing. The big change is with Type 2 — caused partly by  obesity.

In just a decade, the number of Americans diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes more than doubled to 14.7 million and the government estimates more than 5 million others have it and don't know it.

"These are people that have no opportunity to control the blood sugar, and these are people who find out about the diabetes when they discover a complication," says Dr. Garland.

The complications include damage to the entire circulatory system — which in turn can cause heart attacks, blindness, loss of arms and legs, kidney damage and stroke. But it does not have to happen.

After David Elkins was diagnosed two years ago, he lost 35 pounds and started exercising regularly. Now his blood sugar is normal.

"It's great to be able to feel like I'm in shape," he says.

A simple blood test can detect whether a person's blood sugar is moving toward diabetic level. Experts recommend that everyone 45 and older, obese or with a family history of diabetes, get the test.

Research released Monday suggests that if people find out they have slightly elevated blood sugar and make some modest lifestyle changes, millions of cases of diabetes could be prevented.