11 November 2020

Diabetes: the growing hidden killer worldwide

World Diabetes Day – 14 November 2020. Employers must seize the opportunity

Towergate Health & Protection is highlighting diabetes as a rapidly growing concern worldwide and asking employers to help educate and support their staff.

Sarah Dennis, Head of International at Towergate Health & Protection says: “The concern with diabetes is that its prevalence is growing rapidly, with more people developing the disease and dying from it every year. I believe diabetes could overtake some cancers in terms of worldwide deaths if it isn’t managed.”

In 2000, diabetes did not even figure on the top ten causes of death compiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO).1 By 2016, it was placed as the 7th biggest cause of death, killing 1.6 million people, up from less than 1 million in 2000. 

Understanding types

Diabetes is a serious condition where blood glucose levels are too high. There are two main types of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2. With Type 1 diabetes the body cannot make insulin at all. Type 2 diabetes is where the body cannot use insulin efficiently and then production cannot keep up with demand. The big difference is that Type 2 diabetes is linked to lifestyle factors, such as being overweight and lack of exercise.

Detection of diabetes

Early diagnosis and close monitoring of diabetes are very important, but the condition can go undetected for a long time. Employees overseas with international private medical insurance (IPMI) can go straight to a consultant without having to see a GP first for a referral. This can cut down the amount of time taken in diagnosing conditions like diabetes and can encourage employees to take action regarding health concerns.  

Lifestyle factors

While Type 2 diabetes typically occurs in people over the age of 45, younger people are increasingly being diagnosed with Type 2 due to sedentary lifestyles and being overweight. Employees working abroad need to consider their lifestyle, as this may put them at increased risk of diabetes. Health and wellbeing programmes can be a great help here, offering guidance and support on the effects of lifestyle, nutrition and fitness.

Global lifestyle differences

WHO global lifestyle statistics give an insight into the parts of the world where overseas employees may need to be extra vigilant about their eating and exercising habits. There is one region where obesity is increasing at four-times the global average – the South Pacific2. American Samoa, a US territory in the South Pacific, is the most overweight country in the world, where 74.6% of the population is obese. The United States ranks as the 18th most overweight country, with the UK 43rd. The WHO’s study of inactivity3 found that there were four countries in the world where more than half of the population did not get enough exercise. These were Kuwait, Iraq, American Samoa, and Saudi Arabia. Kuwait was top of this list with 67% of adults not exercising enough.

Sarah Dennis, comments: “The International Diabetes Federation looks at the global impact of diabetes and states that three-quarters of people with diabetes are of working age. We might not like to acknowledge it but the lifestyle of those working abroad may not always be conducive to good physical health. Individuals therefore need to keep a closer eye on their wellbeing, and employers would be wise to offer extra health and wellbeing benefits to specifically provide support.”

Emotional toll

The mental impact of diabetes should not be forgotten or underestimated, and employees may also need assistance in this area. Whether someone has just been diagnosed or has lived with diabetes for many years, they may well benefit from support. Stress, depression, burnout and feelings of isolation are not uncommon and it is important for people to be supported in these areas. Providing access to mental health specialists, counselling or global employee assistance programmes can all provide much-needed help.

Covid and diabetes

For those that have diabetes – regardless of the type, they are no more likely to catch coronavirus than anyone else. And the majority of people who do get coronavirus – whether they have diabetes or not – will have mild symptoms and won’t need to go into hospital

However, everyone with diabetes, whichever type, is vulnerable to developing a severe illness if they do get coronavirus, although the way it affects people will vary from person to person.4 So it’s particularly important to be aware of the potential effects, take relevant precautions and seek help early if needed

Symptoms of diabetes

Being aware of the common symptoms of diabetes may help in the early diagnosis of the condition. Shared symptoms5 for type 1 and type 2 diabetes include:

  • Going to the toilet a lot, particularly at night
  • Being really thirsty
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Losing weight without trying to

The time it takes symptoms to appear is different in type 1 and type 2 diabetes. In type 1, symptoms can appear quickly, making them hard to ignore. In type 2, symptoms may appear slowly, especially in the early stages. This can make it easy to miss the signs, meaning that some people can have diabetes for a number of years without realising. Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are a serious health concern, but they are easily diagnosed through urine and blood tests. Getting a diagnosis and advice as soon as possible is key.


1. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death 
2. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/maps-and-graphics/the-most-obese-fattest-countries-in-the-world/ 
3. https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S2214-109X%2818%2930357-7 
4. https://www.diabetes.org.uk/about_us/news/coronavirus 
5. Type 1 symptoms: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/type-1-diabetes/symptoms-and-getting-diagnosed/ / Type 2 symptoms: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/type-2-diabetes/symptoms/