As a wellness provider, I’ve spent a lot of time educating various groups of people about the alarming path many Americans seem to be traveling down.

This path begins with a few pounds gained, here and there. After a few years, you may go to the doctor or take part in an onsite health screening at work and be surprised by the results (even though the problem has been literally staring at you in the mirror): you are obese.

It’s something that most people will deny, but one-third of the U.S. population is obese. As I chronicled in a recent article, the next step is usually metabolic syndrome (METs), which can lead to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Most people are somewhat aware of cardiovascular disease or know people who have suffered from heart attacks. Cardiovascular disease is more widely known than diabetes because it is a more observable condition.

In fact, heart disease has an entire month designated to spreading awareness and education about the disease. For the most part, people who have cardiovascular disease might have a heart attack or a stroke, and they either survive or they don’t. From my many years in the health and wellness field, this is much easier for people to understand than is the condition of diabetes and the contributing factors involved.

When most people are told that they could develop diabetes, they know it’s bad, but they can’t quite put their finger on what is SO bad about it. You’d rather get diabetes than cardiovascular disease, right? Not so fast. Diabetes affects every system in your body and has a devastating effect on blood vessels. This can lead to such serious issues as blindness and amputation of limbs. Diabetes can cause kidney failure, nerve damage, digestive problems, bladder problems, sexual issues, sores that won’t heal, and unexplained pain.

Instead of having to watch things such as fat content or salt intake – which contribute to heart disease – with diabetes you have to monitor everything you eat, as well as how long you go without eating. You need to stick your finger several times a day to test your blood sugar. And if this isn’t life altering enough, it can be extremely expensive to you personally.  

With nearly 26 million children and adults afflicted with the disease in the United States and an additional 79 million at risk for type 2 diabetes, this has reached epidemic proportions, according to the American Diabetes Association. Recent estimates project that as many as 1 in 3 American adults will have diabetes in 2050, unless continued education and action is taken to address the issue.

Many people realize there is a difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Most people with type 1 diabetes are also diagnosed as children, and because of this, they grow up with a higher level of personal responsibility. They have to take care of themselves. However, many of the lifestyle choices that people make, which lead to them developing type 2 diabetes, are the same choices that can result in the more serious complications that diabetes can bring. According to the American Diabetes Association, you can prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes through a healthy lifestyle.

Not only do many type 2 diabetics avoid taking corrective action to their lifestyle, but many don’t even know they have diabetes. If they do know, they’re often not familiar enough with the condition to realize the grave danger they are in. The worst part is that many of those who do understand what the diagnosis means, often choose to do nothing about it. In that case, it can often lead to a slow miserable demise.

Diabetes is one of the most costly conditions I see on a daily basis. I see no way to turn the tide of our rising health care costs unless employers play a more active role in the health of their employee population and hold them accountable for their personal health decisions.

Some employees need basic education on what their health measures mean to them from a physical and financial perspective, while others may need a more specific wellness approach, holding them accountable for meeting health goals, or else pay a higher health care premium.

While employer intervention isn’t the only answer, it’s certainly a critical piece to helping reduce health care costs and promote healthier lifestyles.