Experts are saying diabetes is affecting a quickly-growing number of American truck drivers who are either ignoring common signs of the disease or have no idea that they even have Type 2 diabetes–the most common form.
Diabetes impacts the body’s ability to respond to or produce insulin, which allows for abnormal carbohydrate metabolism and higher-than-usual levels of glucose in the blood. Typically, a diabetic can test this impact by pricking a finger and using a test strip and glucose monitor.
Still, many truckers who have been diagnosed with the disease fail to eat correctly, exercise, or watch their weight adequately, experts say.
“Early on, you’ll feel fine, until one day, boom–your body is going to crash,” explained TrueLifeCare senior vice president, Kay Pfeiffer. TrueLifeCare specifically helps employers and their workers handle diabetes and its effects.
“Medications are a temporary solution,” Pfeiffer continued. “[If] diabetes [is] not managed, sooner or later, something is going to happen.”
One of the potential side effects of untreated diabetes? Blindness.
“If blood sugar is too high for too long, you run the risk of having damage to the eyes, the kidneys, and the heart,” said medical doctor and truck driver health expert, Natalie Hartenbaum. “Those that can’t control their blood sugar will generally end up on insulin.”
When a truck driver is healthy and passes his or her medical exam given by a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration examiner, he or she will be granted a two-year medical card. If a driver has a diagnosis like diabetes, that driver will receive a certification of one year or less.
According to chiropractor David Thorpe, who trains FMCSA-certified medical examiners, around 43% of truckers currently possess a medical card for one year or less.
“It’s a stressful job, a lot of time away from home, poor eating habits…drivers are notoriously overweight, and in poor health in general,” said Thorpe in regards to diabetes’ prominence among truck drivers. “Plus, [truckers are] an aging population.”
Still, there is not currently any cure for Type 2 diabetes, so the disease must be managed by one’s dedication to eating and exercising healthily.
“You have to get in front of diabetes,” Pfeiffer said. “You have to have the will to manage diabetes.”
Truckers can often handle their diabetes without drugs, but they’ll commonly utilize some kind of oral medication.
“Oftentimes [oral medications] work very well, other times they don’t,” said Thorpe. Even with drugs, Type 2 diabetes needs to be monitored closely.
“Really, we don’t know that much about Type 2 diabetes,” said Pfieffer.
Those with Type 1 diabetes must rely on insulin to stay healthy and risks can be fatal if insulin isn’t taken regularly.
According to a 2014 survey by FMCSA, long-haul drivers self-reported higher diabetes rates than national averages. These drivers showed that 14.1% of them were diabetics, as opposed to the 7 to 10% of the U.S. population with the disease. TrueLifeCare estimates that 25% of truckers over the age of 54 have diabetes.
Additionally, obesity rates are more than doubled when compared to national averages, with 69% of long-haul drivers being obese and 17% being morbidly obese, and the national numbers being 31% for obesity and 7% for morbid obesity.
“It’s almost an epidemic,” said retired medical doctor Larry Wolfe, who was a Vanderbilt University Diabetes Center staff doctor for a decade. “Truck drivers tend to be obese, don’t exercise, they eat wrong–so their diabetes is a real problem to manage, even under the best of circumstances. The major fear always was that they would experience hypoglycemia and lose consciousness while they are driving.”
Type 2 diabetes symptoms can include blurry vision, shaky hands, profuse sweating, irritability, and a lack of coordination. Ignoring these signs can lead to foot or leg ulcers that could end up causing the limb to need an amputation.
Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety initiated a “Commercial Driver Safety Risk Factors” study this June and used data collected from more than 21,000 truck drivers. Although the study found that diabetic truckers who are being treated are not at any larger risk of accidents, those drivers are 38% more likely to have a moving violation when compared to drivers who do not have diabetes.
“Diabetes goes along with the epidemic of obesity,” said Wolfe. “And unfortunately, we won’t be able to get a good handle on the treatment of Type 2 diabetes until we get a handle on how to treat obesity. That’s the real problem–that we don’t know how to get people to lose weight. If we could, there would be a whole lot less Type 2 diabetes.”
To better regulate and combat obesity and diabetes, experts say that FMCSA must not rely so heavily on a trucker’s physician and examiners to make sure said trucker is taking the necessary insulin or medication. Currently, there is an overall lack of federal guidance in this area.
“FMCSA doesn’t monitor medical conditions,” said Hartenbaum. “They don’t monitor sleep apnea, they don’t monitor blood pressure, they don’t monitor heart disease. They have medical standards and medical guidelines. But it’s up to the medical examiner to evaluate whether the individual is at risk of sudden or gradual incapacitation due to a medical condition, and whether a study is needed to evaluate that.”