published March 1, 2006

SENCER E-Newsletter, March 2006, Volume 5, Issue 6

Understanding Diabetes as a Civic Issue

In January, The New York Times published a series of articles on diabetes. The series took a look at this emerging, and often overlooked, crisis from a variety of perspectives, including how it disproportionately affects minority and immigrant populations, the rising costs of health care, and complications due to untreated cases.

From time to time, we like to dedicate space in the e-newsletter to examine a capacious issue "through" which one can teach "to" basic science. Diabetes is an ideal candidate for "SENCERization." Here's why:

Why study Diabetes?

Diabetes refers to a group of disorders characterized by defects in the way the body deals with the production or function of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood glucose. Although manageable, once advanced or when insulin is haphazardly checked, diabetes truly "ravages and wreaks havoc on the body." This can lead to conditions such as blindness, heart disease, and kidney disease and drastic interventions including amputation. Diabetes is a chronic disease that can be attributed to genetics or triggered by improper nutrition and low activity levels. The study of diabetes encompasses a variety of scientific disciplines. The need to reduce the prevalence of cases in America will take cooperation among scientists, policy makers, and educators.

Why is Diabetes a Civic Issue?

According to the most recent statistics, diabetes affects 20.8 million Americans of every background, but disproportionately high numbers of the American Indian, African American, and Hispanic/Latino American Communities. Type 2 diabetes, which is responsible for at least 90% of cases, has been linked closely to the "obesity epidemic" that is jeopardizing the health of the majority of people. The positive side is that in many cases, changing nutrition to a lower fat, high-fiber, high vegetable diet and increasing regular activity can ward off type 2 diabetes and its physical and economic consequences.

The prevalence rates of type 2 diabetes in 23 states have doubled since 1994. It has had an especially large impact on people of lower socioeconomic status who may have diminished access to healthy foods, preventive healthcare, social services, medical care, and advocacy. Thus, diabetes is a civic issue that is a threat to the physical and fiscal health of our country. With less and less preventative measures offered by HMOs, communities are taking a greater role in making the health of their members a priority. Universities can also play a role in raising student consciousness about the implications of chronic disease and encouraging them to adjust their own habits.

What would a SENCER Diabetes course look like?

Matthew Fisher of St. Vincent College has given us an excellent example of what a SENCER diabetes course would look like in his SENCER Model, "Chemistry of Daily Life: Malnutrition and Diabetes". Matt's course teaches "to" diabetes "through" principles of chemistry. But, we wonder, what would a diabetes course taught through mathematics look like? Or engineering? Or biology? How might one incorporate university-wide policy or raise community-wide awareness? There are so many angles through which diabetes can be viewed. A social, civic, and epidemiological issue of this scale is well-suited for the application of the SENCER ideals.