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The coronavirus pandemic is killing people with diabetes or Alzheimer's who didn't even contract the virus

Marie McCullough, Stacey Burling and Chris A. Williams, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

The coronavirus has so far killed about 325,000 people in this country, but that staggering toll does not include the multitudes who have died because of disruptions, isolation and destitution related to the pandemic.

People with diabetes or Alzheimer's disease are particularly vulnerable.

An Inquirer analysis of federal data found that from mid-March through November, Pennsylvania had 753 more deaths attributed to Alzheimer's and diabetes than would be expected based on the last four years, a 14% increase for each cause. In New Jersey, there were 634 more deaths than expected for the two causes, an increase of 11% for Alzheimer's and 33% for diabetes.

The same trends occurred across the country, according to the Inquirer analysis, which aligns with other studies this year of "excess deaths" — the gap between actual and expected deaths. The biggest deviation from the norm for Alzheimer's and diabetes was in April, but every month had excess deaths attributed to these causes.

Even in the best of times, diabetes can be a costly, complex, frustrating condition to manage. Sugar builds up in the blood, either because the body can't properly use or doesn't make enough insulin, the hormone that regulates sugar. If not controlled with diet, exercise, and often, medication, diabetes can cause devastating complications including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and lower-extremity amputations. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.

Because Type 2 diabetes, the most common type, is closely linked to obesity, incidence has been soaring over the last decade. About 34 million American adults and children — just over one in 10 — have diabetes, and 88 million more adults — about one in three — have higher than normal blood sugar, called prediabetes.

 

Barbara Simon, an endocrinologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, sees "multiple layers and multiple factors" related to the pandemic eroding the health and welfare of her diabetes patients.

"From my experience, the No. 1 issue is economic stress," she said. "Many are out of work and not able to afford their already expensive medicines."

Even the price of insulin, a decades-old generic drug, has increased dramatically over the last decade. (For those with Medicare, some Part D plans will cap the monthly copay for insulin at $35 beginning in January.)

"Studies have shown that prior to the COVID pandemic, up to 25% of insulin-dependent diabetics rationed supplies to save money," area physician Jennifer N. Goldstein wrote in September in The Inquirer. "The dramatic rise in unemployment and the loss of employer-sponsored health insurance due to the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to bring this crisis to a breaking point. This is particularly true in Pennsylvania, where unemployment rates hover around 13%, and almost 700,000 residents are uninsured."

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