FARMINGTON — Diabetes can be a debilitating and even deadly disease if left untreated, but when caught early, most diabetics can learn to manage the disease and live a normal life.

For those diagnosed with diabetes, San Juan Regional Medical Center offers a six-part series of classes held on Tuesdays from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. The classes are aimed at educating diabetics and those who support them about the "nuts and bolts" of living with diabetes, including the importance of managing a healthy lifestyle to minimize the effects of the disease.

"People don't have to attend all of the classes, but we do build on the information of previous classes, so we encourage people to attend as many as possible," said registered nurse and certified diabetes educator Jill Chason. "We encourage people to build on small goals each week, and we leave a lot of room for class participation."

The classes explain what diabetes is, how it affects the body, and covers testing and medication issues and how diabetics can adjust their lifestyle and nutrition patterns. Later classes focus on heart health risks, "because diabetes is an independent factor of heart disease," said Chason. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.

Chason said in San Juan County, 10 percent of the population -- more than 10,000 people -- have been diagnosed with some form of diabetes, and the state spends $1 billion dollars annually on diabetes care and treatment. That compares to a national average of 8.3 percent.

Chason said the higher local percentage of diabetes is probably due to the diverse ethnicity of this region.

"Native Americans have the highest prevalence of diabetes, then Spanish, African American and Pacific Islanders," she said.

Unlike some other serious diseases, diabetes often does not present recognizable symptoms until it reaches a more advanced stage. Symptoms such as lethargy or irritation, frequent urination, unusual thirst, blurry vision, intense hunger, unusual weight loss, are possible signs of diabetes, as is having a wound that will not heal.

Routine tests such as an annual blood test or urine test can detect early onset diabetes or pre-diabetes conditions. Early detection is desirable.

"When diabetes has progressed, it's harder to suddenly have to make those necessary changes," said Chason, adding that anyone 45 or older who has family members with diabetes should have an annual blood sugar test, and should be tested even earlier if they have a strong family history of diabetes.

Type I diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, does not have much of a genetic component, and is rarer. Type II diabetes is more likely to be seen in families, and 90 percent of those diagnosed will have this type of diabetes.

In Type I, the patient's pancreas completely stops producing insulin, so there's more of an abrupt decline in health. Regular doses of insulin must immediately be given, and lifestyle changes must be immediately adopted. Type II can take months or years to be detected.

With Type II diabetes, "we don't even have to administer medicine if we catch it early, but can treat it with lifestyle changes," she said.

Bob Herreh, funeral director at Cope Memorial Chapel, was diagnosed with Type I diabetes 40 years ago.

Now 68 and on an insulin pump, Herreh said he first became aware that something wasn't right healthwise when he was a 28-year-old construction worker.

"I was on the construction site, and I had this cotton mouth. I couldn't get enough to drink, and it was so bad I kept using the worksite hose to drench my mouth," said Herreh. "I'd also find myself driving on the wrong side of the road like I was drunk, but I don't drink.

"When I'm on a low, it's really hard for me to think, my motorskills are sluggish, and even my knees feel like gelatin and won't hold me up."

Herreh has learned to deal with his diabetes, and is glad that the hospital is offering classes about the disease.

"Yes, diabetes is crummy, but as long as people are informed and know how to deal with it by adopting a regular, consistent lifestyle pattern, diabetes can become a smaller part of their lives," adds Chason. 

The next series of classes starts March 26, and continues through the following five Tuesdays at the San Juan Regional Medical Center's 2325 E. 30th Street building. Classes are free of charge. For more information, call 505-609-2867.

Leigh Black Irvin may be reached at lirvin@daily-times.com; 505-546-4610. Follow her on Twitter @irvindailytimes