TORONTO — Dr. Bernard Zinman, 68, director of the Leadership Sinai Centre for Diabetes and senior investigator at the hospital’s Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, says he is “humbled” by his recent appointment to the Order of Canada.
At Mount Sinai Hospital since 1990 and a professor of medicine at University of Toronto, Zinman, a native of Montreal, was recognized for his achievements in diabetes patient care and research.
He was principal investigator in the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial, which showed that keeping blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible slows the onset and progression of eye, kidney and nerve damage caused by diabetes.
The aim of his research is to develop new therapies that treat diabetes, and to improve care and quality of life for people with diabetes.
Zinman, who is married, and has three children and four grandchildren, said he has won awards before, “but this is not just a medical award. This recognizes my contribution to the country and to my lifetime achievements. I’m fortunate to have worked in a great institution with great collaborators.”
It is gratifying, he said, to see diabetes so highly recognized. “Globally, it is an epidemic. By 2030, about 500 million people worldwide will be affected by [the disease.] It is increasing in both developing and developed countries.
“Diabetes is the disease of the 21st century, and it will surpass the health and economic implications of AIDS.”
For the first time, he said, the United Nations has recognized the impact diabetes has on people’s lives and on the economy. “The cost of managing [the disease] is huge. It is the lead cause of blindness and kidney failure, and it is taking its toll globally.”
Zinman said diabetes is affected by both genetics and environment. “We can’t change our genes, but we can change our environment. Reasonably modest changes in diet and lifestyle, though, can help [turn things around.] By reducing body weight by seven per cent, diabetes can be reduced by 58 per cent, but changes are hard to implement.”
Type 2 diabetes used to be a disease of the elderly, he said, but people are getting it younger and younger. “The duration of diabetes is a big factor in developing complications. Someone who gets it in their 30s or 40s is at a significant risk.”
Type 1 diabetes, he said, which used to be called juvenile diabetes, “is a different type of diabetes. It is due to an autoimmune destruction of the beta cells that make insulin. It occurs in young, healthy children who need insulin to survive. To them, insulin is a lifesaver.”
He said certain societal changes can help curb Type 2 diabetes. “We need communities that are designed to facilitate walking. We also need to make the caloric content of fast foods more readily available, and cut out supersized portions. If we curb the obesity epidemic, we can curb diabetes.”