"There has been tremendous concern, but probably not enough concern, about the emerging epidemic of diabetes," said Dr. Robert Rizza, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and president of the American Diabetes Association. "It doesn't take long to be doubling before the numbers are simply too great to be even conceived of."
"We've got to stop this, and, of course, it's obesity which is driving it," Rizza added. "This is a biologic weapon which has been unleashed on our population -- its name is diabetes."
Experts agree that the great increase in obesity over the same time frame appears to be responsible for the growing incidence of diabetes. An estimated two-thirds of adult Americans are now overweight or obese.
"These [diabetes numbers] warrant monitoring, especially if we continue to see increases in the trends of obesity," said study lead author Dr. Caroline S. Fox, a medical officer at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Framingham Heart Study.
The study findings appear in the June 19 issue of the journal Circulation.
In type 2 diabetes, the body either doesn't produce enough insulin -- the hormone that converts blood sugar to energy for cells -- or the cells ignore the insulin. Left untreated, the disease can produce complications such as heart disease, blindness, nerve and kidney damage.
In their study, Fox and her colleagues collected data on 3,104 men and women, ages 40 to 55, who participated in the Framingham Offspring study. All participants were diabetes-free at the start of the study, and they received a routine physical examination during the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. They were also followed for eight years to track new cases of diabetes.
The researchers found that the odds of developing type 2 diabetes increased 40 percent from the 1970s to the '80s, and doubled between the '70s and '90s. The data revealed that among women, there was an 84 percent increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes in the '90s, compared with the '70s. In men, the incidence of type 2 diabetes more than doubled in the '90s compared with the '70s.
This trend must be reversed to avoid serious repercussions for the U.S. economy and health-care system, Rizza said.
"It requires a concerted effort by our health-care system, by our government, by all parts of society to realize that this epidemic is endangering not only all the people alive, but our children and our children's children," Rizza said. "Our health-care system and our nation's economy cannot tolerate one in three people having diabetes."
One expert thinks the only way to correct the problem is by making a total lifestyle change.
"This epidemic results, almost entirely, from obesity and sedentary behavior," said Cathy Nonas, director of the obesity and diabetes program at North General Hospital, in New York City, and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"The more sedentary we are, the fatter we get, the more insulin resistance we get, the more at risk we are for type 2 diabetes," Nonas said. "We have to maintain healthier weights. We have to be active."