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Truth in numbers

As a retired emergency room doctor, Moda Health member, Tim Rittenberry, knows a thing or two about medical numbers. So when his own lab results showed that his blood sugar level was slightly elevated, it caught his attention. As an avid cyclist and weight lifter, and someone who always had perfect sugar and cholesterol levels, something was amiss. Requests for ongoing tests over the next few years confirmed his suspicions.

For someone who’d always lived an active lifestyle and watched his weight, Tim wasn’t sure how to react to his higher-than-normal numbers.

“I’d always been sort of a health nut my whole life, so this was alarming to me because I didn’t understand the pre-diabetic range,” he said. “I thought it meant diabetes was just around the corner.”

For 30 years, Tim was able to maintain a steady weight eating pretty much anything he wanted. He figured as a long as he exercised, it didn’t matter what he ate. But in his mid-50s, he’d put on 20 pounds. Then, he thought about his late parents. While they had become obese late in life and were taking medication commonly used to treat diabetes, they were never diagnosed with the disease. Looking back, the signs were there despite not having a documented family history of diabetes.

“I was sort of in denial,” he said. “I wanted to agree with my parents. They didn’t have diabetes, but because they were older and obese, they needed oral hypoglycemic medication (to lower the glucose level in the blood). From my point of view now, you can’t pull those things apart. I thought there was too much evidence to ignore. I should probably do something.”

All linked together

Tim took on a low-carb diet recommended by a friend, and in six months, without counting calories or altering his physical activities, lost 20 pounds. While he felt better back at his normal weight, he realized it wasn’t just exercising that keeps you healthy as you age, you also have to eat right.

“I think the dietary component of helping reduce your risk is big,” he said. “I’d always exercised as an avid biker. I’ve always had a weight lifting program in effect. I didn’t change any of those. I kept those up. But it wasn’t a case of burning more calories at all. It was a case of changing my diet, basically getting rid of all the refined starches and sugars.”

One of the biggest lessons he’s learned through his experience is the importance of changing habits as we age, particularly what we eat.

“What I know now is you probably shouldn’t be eating at age 55 what you were eating at age 35,” he said. “I see the epidemic of obesity, heart disease and diabetes as all linked together, and how they are highly tied to our nutritional failures over the last 50 to 70 years.”

Even in the medical community, Tim said the more we learn about preventive care, the more we understand how important nutrition is to our overall health.

“As a physician myself, I was grossly untrained for anything about nutrition,” he said. “Physicians still spend a great deal of time focusing on how to treat problems. There really hasn’t been an emphasis on how we shouldn’t have these problems to start with, but I think we’re getting there.”

Sleep as medicine

Along with proper nutrition, Tim said sleep also plays an important role in our physical and mental health. As a shift worker in emergency medicine at Chicago’s Illinois Masonic Center for 30 years, he’s seen firsthand the impact that a high-stressed work environment can have on our health.

“Sleep is incredibly important for every metabolic and neurologic function we have, including our mental health,” he said. “Having been a shift worker in emergency medicine, I can tell you that many physicians and nurses I’ve worked with who get into a rotating schedule become chronically sleep deprived. When you are chronically fatigued, incidents of obesity, as well as mental health problems, go way up.

“You really need to get enough sleep,” he added. “Getting adequate sleep is one of the most ignored easy fixes we have to our chronic healthcare problems.”

Managing your condition

So, what should someone do when they find out they’re on track for pre-diabetes or diagnosed with diabetes? While managing your condition will be different based on your numbers and genetics, Tim recommends a few things that have helped him manage his:

  1. Educate yourself. Educate yourself about what your best options are. Since everyone’s idea of quality of life is different, you need to weigh your options to make the best choices for your unique situation.
  2. Get a physician or nutritionist on board. Not everyone who tries new diets, such as a low-carb diet, will have the same results. Before making big changes, consult a physician or nutritionist.
  3. Ask questions. When Tim first learned his blood sugar level was higher than normal, his doctor wasn’t as concerned as he was. He asked to have his hemoglobin A1C checked because it’s not a normal lab that some doctors do on annual checkups. Over time, the tests confirmed his concerns.
  4. Surround yourself with support. Before making his dietary changes, he sat down to talk to his wife, Dana, about the changes he planned to make. In his words, “She was super supportive. She said if this is what you need to do, we’ll do it together.” He says support from those around you is critical to making and sustaining new lifestyle changes.
  5. Schedule regular doctor visits. Even if you don’t have a family history of diabetes, people should check in once in a while. Once you turn 40, most physicians would like to see you every couple of years to check on things.

While our demanding lifestyles can contribute to our health woes, Tim reminds us that we all have choices at every stage of our lives.

“When we’re always on the go, we don’t realize there’s a problem when we’re chronically fatigued,” he said. “When it comes to making healthy changes, it is a choice. We can all benefit from a few changes, no matter what age we are.”

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