KEEPING UP WITH diabetes is hard enough. Now imagine having to do it as a teenager.
For lots of reasons, it can be hard to keep up with proper self-care.
“Teens have too many distractions in their lives: school, college, friends, family, dating and finding themselves. The list goes on and on,” says Dr. Deena Adimoolam, an assistant professor of diabetes, endocrinology and bone disease at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
“Many teenagers simply wish that the disease would just disappear and sometimes act as if the disease does not exist,” says Dr. Michael Freemark, a professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. In fact, that’s why only about 20 percent of teens with Type 1 diabetes meet target hemoglobin A1C guidelines (that’s a measurement of blood sugar over the previous three months) and also why many obese teens with Type 2 diabetes do not lose a significant amount of weight, Freemark says.
The many distractions in teens’ lives can lead to serious and sometimes life-threatening consequences.
Take, for instance, what happened to Shalynn Padgett of Tampa, Florida. Padgett is an 18-year-old student at the University of South Florida who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 5. Although Padgett is more open and vigilant about her diabetes care now, she used to find it a major challenge to manage social activities and diabetes. When she first started to use an insulin pump, she neglected an alarm that warned her that her infusion site for the pump had been blocked. That led her body to enter diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening condition. “I struggled with getting my blood glucose level to normal and suffered from the symptoms of a coma,” she says.
Padgett’s story highlights the dangers that anyone with diabetes may experience – but especially a teen who is not fully aware of the importance of diabetes self-management.
If you’re a teen living with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes – or if you know a teen struggling in this area – here are a few ways to improve self-care.
Make diabetes tasks part of your routine, suggests licensed clinical psychologist and certified diabetes educator Maureen Monaghan, an assistant professor of psychology and behavioral health at Children’s National Health System in the District of Columbia. By setting up your environment with the right diabetes supplies, food choices and physical activity opportunities, diabetes care becomes more manageable. One example that Monaghan shares: “Teens can keep their glucose meter next to their morning alarm and check glucose levels each morning before they get out of bed.” Like any habit, it may take a few weeks before diabetes tasks become a regular part of your daily routine.
Let adults and close friends know about your condition. You may not always want to talk about diabetes, but you want to get the right medical help if needed. “It can help for others to know the signs of low blood glucose levels, or hypoglycemia, so they can help in emergency situations,” Monaghan says.
Ask your whole family to get on board with better care. This will make it easier to follow your doctor’s recommendations. “This will likely mean changes in the whole family’s diet,” Freemark says. For instance, if your family enjoys sugary drinks, advocate for a switch to water so there’s less temptation.
Keep those doctor visits up-to-date. “Numerous studies and my personal experience dictate that missed clinical visits are likely to be accompanied by deterioration in diabetic control,” Freemark says. Regular visits provide a supportive environment and give you and your parents or guardians a chance to ask questions or make important changes to your care.
Find support from others in the same situation. For instance, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation has coaches to help guide you through better care, says nurse practitioner and certified diabetes educator Ana Warren of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. There are also online and in-person support groups, and some states have summer camps to connect young people with diabetes. By connecting with others, you’ll likely feel less awkward about your own self-management. Finding support from others also may help stave off depression that is caused by the burden of diabetes self-care.
Discuss continuous blood glucose monitor and insulin pump readings on a weekly basis with parents or guardians, Warren suggests. This is a solid way to keep parents involved while also giving you an emerging independent role in your own care. It also helps families identify what changes may need to be made based on time periods with high or low blood sugars. Unfortunately, this step isn’t always done. “Truthfully, this can be challenging for some of our families that can have very complicated lives,” Warren says.
Use technology to your advantage. “I advocate for technologies like continuous glucose monitors and insulin pumps for the right patients,” Adimoolam says. There are also apps that help remind patients of all ages to do their blood sugar checks, help with carb counting and other tasks. Freemark has seen mixed results with apps among teens, as some want to continue to believe they don’t have to care for their diabetes.
Take on a leadership role in educating others about diabetes. This can be hard to do as a teen, but Padgett has found it’s been a great way to help her become more open about living with the disease. In fact, now that she’s in college, she even wears her insulin pump and tubing in open areas, such as her arm and will answer questions about it and correct disease misconceptions she hears from others. “Educating others is a great start to changing the way in which you handle your condition,” she says.
Project into the future. Again, this can be hard to do as a teen, but it’s critical as you mature because many times, the long-term negative effects of diabetes aren’t obvious until you get older, Padgett says. By taking better care of yourself now, you can avoid some of the scary consequences in the future, such as vision loss or amputations.
Written by By Vanessa Caceres,