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Hanks’s diagnosis shows type 2 diabetes ‘not just a disease of obese people’

Actor Tom Hanks arrives for the European premiere of Captain Phillips, on the opening night of the London Film Festival, at the Odeon Leicester Square in central London October 9, 2013.

SUZANNE PLUNKETT/REUTERS

Tom Hanks recently acknowledged that his yo-yoing weight for Hollywood roles may have been a contributing factor to his recent diagnosis as a type 2 diabetic.

That makes sense to Dr. Rob Conway, a diabetologist with the Diabetes Clinic in Smiths Falls, Ont. "Dramatic weight gain and loss can definitely contribute to type 2 diabetes, particularly the weight gain," he said.

Type 2 diabetes is a disease in which your pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or your body does not properly use the insulin it makes. As a result, glucose (sugar) builds up in your blood instead of being used for energy. Insulin is a hormone that helps to control the level of glucose in your blood.

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Hanks is among 20 million Americans with type 2 diabetes. There are roughly 2.5 million with the disease in Canada. Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 can be prevented, delayed and controlled by embracing a healthy lifestyle, says Dr. Jan Hux, chief scientific adviser with the Canadian Diabetes Association.

At the London premiere for his high-seas thriller Captain Phillips, Hanks told the crowd that he was likely "genetically inclined" to develop the disease, adding that doctors had been warning of his high blood-sugar levels for almost two decades. The 57-year-old Academy Award winner added that he would not be taking on any more roles that require huge weight fluctuations.

Hux says Hanks's story "serves as a reminder that [type 2 diabetes] is not just a disease of obese people." And she's not surprised he had warning signs years before his diagnosis. "It's a gradual disease with onset symptoms [high blood pressure, vision weakness, fatigue, frequent urination] popping up 10 to 15 years before patients are often formally diagnosed."

Hux estimates that an additional one million Canadians are currently undiagnosed, primarily because of the creep factor. "The root cause of type 2 is complex," she adds. "It's a combination of genetic and environmental factors. It runs strongly in families and in certain ethnicities, with our First Nations people at the highest risk."

Type 2 diabetes is one of the fastest-growing diseases in Canada, with more than 60,000 new cases yearly, according to Health Canada.

"We're aging, we're getting more obese, we're eating too many refined foods, and we're sitting too much. Exercise is key," Conway said.

The health risks include blindness, heart disease (40 per cent of people with diabetes will die from heart attack or stroke), nerve damage, erectile dysfunction or reduced blood supply to the limbs, leading to amputation.

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