Inside Kentucky Health

Thanks to advances in medicine and technology, life expectancy in the United States has been increasing every year since medical professionals began keeping statistics. But that progress has stopped recently because of an epidemic of diabetes.

That’s according to Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar, Director of the University of Louisville’s Diabetes and Obesity Center. For eight years, the Center has focused on performing research and preparing and recruiting investigators to study the disease.

“There’s been a virtual explosion from the 1990s to now, and Kentucky has the highest rates of people who are overweight and obese,” Dr. Bhatnagar said. “You can make the case that it is the major public health problem in the U.S. and we are at the center of it.”

The Center received a $12 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2007, and another $11.25 million in 2013. More than 80 faculty and students are involved in the activities at the Center.

According to the Center’s web site, Kentucky ranks third nationally among states in childhood obesity and sixth in adult diabetes. One in five Kentucky children are overweight.

Bhatnagar_Aruni_in lab

Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar, Director of the University of Louisville’s Diabetes and Obesity Center

Dr. Bhatnagar said the main risk factor for diabetes is obesity, which is in turn caused largely by people being physically inactive. He said genetics is also a factor. And anyone with diabetes is at an increased risk for heart disease.

There is no known cause or cure for diabetes, which occurs when the body either does not produce enough insulin or does not use insulin properly. Insulin converts glucose, or sugar, into the energy the body needs to perform in daily life.

Dr. Bhatnagar said treatments are improving so that people with diabetes can live a long time, though it requires constant monitoring of insulin levels. He said 80 percent of deaths among diabetes patients are from heart disease.

“Diabetes and obesity are the two most significant health threats of our age,” he said. “These epidemics are spreading at an alarming rate, rapidly eroding recent gains in longevity and adding to the burden of chronic diseases. Obesity decreases lifespan and increases the risk of developing chronic illness such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”

Dr. Bhatnagar said the research his team performs at the U of L is helping medical professionals better understand the disease.

“Long-term diabetes leads to nerve and kidney damage and it increases in the risk of heart attack and stroke,” he said. “We approach diabetes and obesity not as disease states with one specific cause, but as outcomes of a larger, more comprehensive dysfunction that profoundly affects all major organs. Our researchers work tirelessly to develop a better understanding of the connection between diabetes and obesity, and how these conditions affect cardiovascular health.”

Along with Dr. Bhatnagar, the American Diabetes of Association of Kentuckiana does a lot of work around Greater Louisville to raise awareness of diabetes. Recently, the organization raised $170,000 at its annual STEP OUT walk on the Big Four Lawn. More than 150 teams participated and it was the largest turnout in the event’s history. For more information about the local chapter of the ADA, please go online to