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A diabetes workshop, free this week at the Lexington Park branch of the St. Mary's County Library, is designed to help participants identify simple steps they can take to address their disease.

“Seven Healthy Habits of People with Diabetes” is offered quarterly by MedStar St. Mary's Hospital and addresses behavior, diet, exercise and medication. The next workshop is Friday, Feb. 8 from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Pre-registration is required.

To learn more

To attend, or obtain information about, free diabetes workshops and screenings, call Health Connections at 301-475-6019.

“When people make small changes, it can make a big difference in their diabetes,” said Tina Leap, a registered nurse and diabetes educator at MedStar St. Mary's.

The workshops attract participants who have been living with the disease for some time. Others are newly diagnosed, frightened and upset. “Part of what we do is make sure they feel comfortable,” Leap said.

The group covers stress management, said Becky Sutay, a dietician who also helps promote diabetes awareness through the hospital. “If you're stressed a lot, that could be raising your blood sugar. It also makes living with diabetes more difficult.” If people worry excessively, they get overwhelmed, she said. Sometimes, they give up trying to manage their disease.

Other steps covered include monitoring blood sugar levels; eating healthy food, such as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables; and getting healthy proteins, such as lean meats, chicken, fish, nuts, eggs and dried beans.

Staying active and always improving one's fitness level is key, Sutay said. Students are reminded to take medication properly and reduce risks such as smoking and drinking, which can impair judgment. Diabetes educators also help workshop participants solve problems affecting the impact of diabetes, such as what to do if blood sugar is always high at a certain time.

The hospital also will offer blood glucose screenings March 26 at the Lexington Park library from 9 to 11 a.m.

A separate, free diabetes prevention class is conducted quarterly. The next sessions are scheduled April 12 at the Lexington Park library from 1 to 3 p.m., and April 13 at MedStar St. Mary's Hospital from 1 to 3 p.m.

The incidence of diabetes in St. Mary's County is about the same as the national average, about 7 to 8 percent of the population. But, Leap said, more St. Mary's residents are likely to die from the disease than people nationwide.

One of the problems is that Type 2 diabetes can occur without symptoms, Leap said. When left untreated, it can damage blood vessels, making them less pliable, leading to high blood pressure. Plaque and clots can occur, hampering circulation and possibly leading to heart disease and stroke. Diabetes can also lead to circulation problems in lower extremities, making it difficult for people to feel their feet. The disease can damage the kidneys, compromising the body's ability to filter waste, possibly leading to kidney disease, dialysis and the need for a kidney transplant.

“When you're dealing with a chronic illness 24/7,” Leap said, “it can be a daunting task.” People with Type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to suffer from clinical depression, which often needs to be treated along with the diabetes. Fluctuating blood sugar levels also can lead to mood swings, she said.

People with a family history of diabetes should see their doctors every three months for blood glucose screenings, Leap said. Regular urine tests, dilated eye exams and foot exams also are critical.

Even a modest amount of weight loss, between 5 and 7 percent of body weight, can help improve blood sugar levels. People can do this by finding a physical activity that they like, and doing it almost every day. Any type of activity is a good start. Fitness novices can start with just 10 minutes of walking each day and build up to the recommended daily 30 minutes of activity.

Diabetes educators, Leap said, hope to help people who have “lost their way a little bit ... We have to try to work on one thing at a time.”