Health & Science

Houstonians With Pre-Diabetes Try Support Group Instead Of Medication

CDC-backed program offered by YMCA, employers, and insurance companies

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Myriam Coenegrachts, left, listens as group coach Susan Walden talks about the negative metabolic effects of skipping meals.

 

Research studies have shown the CDC-developed curriculum cuts the participants’ risk of developing diabetes by 58 percent. Participants in the support group have been identified as being at risk for developing diabetes, based on blood glucose measurements and body weight. The evidence behind the class shows that participants who lose just seven percent of their body weight can cut their risk of developing the full-blown disease.

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Participants in the support group have been identified as being at risk for developing diabetes, based on blood glucose measurements and body weight. The evidence behind the class shows that participants who lose just seven percent of their body weight can cut their risk of developing the full-blown disease.

Ten adults have gathered in a small room at the Brenda and John Duncan YMCA in northwest Houston. They’re white, black, Hispanic and Asian and about the only thing they have in common is pre-diabetes. Their blood glucose levels are elevated, but they’re not quite in the diabetes danger zone – not yet. 

One by one, the group members step onto a scale as Susan Walden, the group’s coach, records their weight. Then they gather around a table. Walden pulls out a photo of Kelly Ripa.

“Anybody ever watch that morning program, with Regin Philbin, remember the little blonde?”

Walden is having a bit of fun — but she also wants to make a serious point: since the group launched in August, the combined weight loss of the group’s members, in total, is the same as Ripa’s entire body weight.

“So just in case you’re wondering? 110 pounds! We’ve lost a human being, albeit a tiny one.”

The group laughs and claps and cheers. Some of them have lost a few pounds, some of them many more — but they all have made progress in dialing back the physical measurements that indicate they are in danger of developing full-blown diabetes.

Almost one in ten Americans has diabetes. Although that’s a startling statistic, it’s not as alarming as the forecast: if present trends continue, one in three Americans will have diabetes by 2050. But public health experts say it’s not inevitable. This class in Houston is part of a national program to slow down the epidemic — by offering an evidence-based curriculum that promotes simple behavioral changes: more activity, less food, and more conscientious lifestyle choices.

Walden, a trainer and retired professor, now spends her time leading groups such as this one. The curriculum was developed through the CDC’s National Diabetes Prevention Program.

“Once you’re diabetic, you’re diabetic,” Walden said. “There’s so many implications for the rest of your life, for your health. These people are not diabetics, they have a chance.”

The groups meet all over the country — at Ys, churches, workplaces, even in housing projects.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta developed the program, and has poured almost $50 million into it.

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Houstonians with pre-diabetes meet regularly at the Brenda and John Duncan YMCA in northwest Houston.

“You really need to just be able to have a place where you can convene people, with some chairs, a white board and a calibrated scale,” said Ann Albright, director of the CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation.

The CDC is preparing an online version of the course as well, which has been field-tested for efficacy. Albright said it will be ready soon.

The program’s main concrete goal is for each participant to lose at least 7 percent of his or her body weight.

Multiple research studies show the program works — completing the program cuts the risk of going on to develop diabetes by 58 percent. That compares well to a 31 percent risk reduction, through taking the medication metformin.

The weekly lesson plans contain no earth-shaking insights. The content is common sense. Members learn about nutrition and physical activity, and methods to track what they eat and how often they exercise.

In the Houston group, Jill Boston talked about how she’s been digitally logging her walks.

“I don’t know if you guys know this, but there’s also apps called ‘Map My Ride’ and ‘Map My Run,’” Boston said. Another group member chimed in, asking if the apps were free or not.

Walden said exchanges like that are what help the program work: participants share moments and examples of problem-solving. That mutual support can lead to real change, she said.

Walden told the group about the importance of finding ways to stay motivated when away from the group, back in the real world.

“You have to walk out that door and drive by the golden arches,” she said. “You have to walk into the house when your spouse has ordered pizza and said ‘Look honey, we got a free giant cookie with it!’”

“I just want you to be finding what works for you, and will work for you two months down the road,” Walden said.

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Research studies have shown the CDC-developed curriculum cuts the participants’ risk of developing diabetes by 58 percent.

Walden told the group to use visual reminders to motivate themselves between meetings.

“You can take your little chart, your weight chart, put it up on the bathroom mirror, put it on the refrigerator so you can watch that line moving down.”

After the class, Silver Harris talked about how she’s permanently changed how she eats.

“I do not eat any fast food anymore. I cook all my food. Breads, pastas, things like that, I don’t eat that anymore,” Harris said.

Since starting the program, Harris’s blood glucose number has gone down. It’s back in the normal range.

“I was borderline, and it went down in four months. So that meant I was doing something right. The class helped. All the tools she was giving us, I was using it. And it worked.”

Some of the group members have insurance that covers the program, but others pay for it themselves.

The CDC is urging more employers and insurance companies to pay for the program. Right now, the program costs about four or five hundred dollars a year per person, depending on the sponsoring agency. (The YMCA charges $429.)

But that compares well to the thousands of dollars in medical costs incurred every year by one person with diabetes.

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Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health and Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is the health and science reporter. Her reporting frequently appears on national NPR shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Before coming to Houston Public Media, Feibel spent ten years as an award-winning newspaper reporter. She has worked at the Houston Chronicle, the Associated Press, and two...

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