Weight-Loss Surgery Can Cure Diabetes In the Obese, According to National Study
Jennifer O'Connell can wear her seat belt again.
And fit through the turnstiles at Raleigh's RBC Center when she and her family go to hockey games. A few weeks ago, she climbed her first set of stairs in seven years.
And she no longer has diabetes.
O'Connell had bariatric (weight-loss) surgery at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in August 2007.
When she was about to go home, her bariatric surgeon, Dr. Kenneth Mitchell, told her she no longer needed the Glucophage that she had taken to control her type 2 diabetes for almost six years.
"He said my blood sugar wasn't high enough to warrant being on the medication anymore," she says.
O'Connell isn't alone in her newfound freedom from diabetes.
According to a study reported in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), an estimated three in every four obese people who suffer from type 2 diabetes can be cured of the disease with bariatric surgery.
Experts say that the finding opens the door to changes in the treatment of diabetes that could be as profound as the discovery of insulin.
According to the JAMA report, researchers found that 73 percent of patients who underwent bariatric surgery were cured of type 2 diabetes as compared to only 13 percent of those who followed other forms of conventional therapy such as dieting and medication.
"Diabetes is a devastating disease process, with ramifications more serious than just trying to keep your blood sugar regulated," says Mitchell, medical director of the FirstHealth Bariatric Center. "The promising information gained from this study is that we now have a published scientific study in the medical literature confirming that the most effective method to treat diabetes mellitus type 2 in the morbidly obese population is bariatric surgery.
"This is very exciting information for our patients and the medical community as well."
Diabetes is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, with a toll that has grown by nearly 50 percent in the past 20 years.
A primary cause is what is generally considered to be a national obesity epidemic. From 1976 to 2005, the percentage of obese adults ages 20 to 74 more than doubled from 15 to 32.9 percent.
Nearly 20 million Americans have type 2 diabetes, a disease that develops when the cells of the body become resistant to insulin or when the pancreas cannot make enough insulin (the hormone that helps cells get needed energy from sugar).
When insulin can't do its job, too much sugar builds up in the blood. Over time, the condition can lead to problems with the eyes, heart, blood vessels, nerves and kidneys.
As opposed to type 1 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in childhood and requires daily doses of insulin to sustain life, type 2 diabetes usually develops in adulthood and often occurs in people who are overweight and get little or no physical exercise. An increasing number of children with type 2 diabetes has also been linked to overweight and lack of exercise, however.
O'Connell's blood glucose (sugar) level used to be in the 200-plus range.
When she had it tested during a December health fair at work, it was 81 even though she had eaten lunch only about 45 minutes earlier.
A normal fasting level is less than 110, while a random test -- one taken at any time -- usually ranges in the low to mid-100s
"I still have my tester at home, so I woke up this morning (March 1) and took it to see what it is and I'm at 83," she says. "I'm very happy."
'Didn't Watch Diet'
Like O'Connell, a 36-year-old business analyst in the IT department of a Raleigh bank, 54-year-old Richard Burgett also found that his diabetes disappeared after bariatric surgery.
A self-described "sugar addict," Burgett had been taking 10 pills and a 35-unit insulin shot each day to "not necessarily" control his condition.
"I really didn't watch my diet," he says. "I would schedule an appointment with my doctors every three months knowing I would be going in for blood work and watch my diet for a few weeks before."
Afterward, he would revert to a diet that included chocolate cake, cookies and other equally offending foods.
"I was terribly out of control, and I didn't realize, it," he says.
A locksmith who lives in Garner, Burgett had bariatric surgery -- also with Mitchell at Moore Regional Hospital -- in May of last year and was completely off all of his diabetes medications three months later. He no longer needs medication to control his cholesterol and blood pressure either.
"I dropped my insulin and evening medications immediately (after surgery)," he says.
At the time of his last blood work, Burgett's total cholesterol was 139. His blood pressure now typically hovers around 112/60, and his glucose level has not been greater than 115 in the last four months. At the time of his type 2 diagnosis about 14 years ago, it was more than 700.
As Burgett's health improved, the impact on his wallet did, too. He estimates that his non-insurance-covered share of the cost for his diabetes medications averaged between $400 and $500 a quarter.
"My checkbook surely likes the difference," he says.
Diet Important Factor
According to Julie Walenta, a registered dietitian with the bariatric program at Moore Regional Hospital, diet continues to be an important factor for bariatric patients even after they have had surgery.
"Sometimes the resolution of diabetes is seen almost immediately by the time the patient leaves the hospital -- so it's not diet-related," she says. "However, the reduced (calorie) intake that is a result of the restriction caused by the surgery can certainly be of assistance. And the diet we recommend, balanced with protein plus fruits and vegetables at each meal, is the type of meal plan that would be prescribed to help balance blood sugar levels."
Both O'Connell, who had lost 108 pounds by the time of her six-month post-op checkup, and Burgett, who had "unofficially" lost 126 pounds nearly nine months after his surgery, say they feel better than they have felt in years.
"I don't think I have felt this good my entire life," says O'Connell.
"Burgett says, It's just a totally different world."
Anyone needing more information on the FirstHealth Bariatric Center can call (800) 213-3284 toll-free.
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