For many of us, a modern, busy life means pre-made meals and entertainment such as video games, movies and television. Unfortunately, the widespread consumption of processed foods coupled with sedentary lifestyles has led to a dramatic rise in diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), 23.6 million American children and adults live with diabetes, while another 57 million are on the verge. Sometimes referred to as a “silent killer”—the ADA says 5.7 million people have the disease and don’t even know it—diabetes needs to be a disease that everyone understands.

So what exactly is diabetes? Simply put, diabetes is a disease that affects the way your body uses food for energy. A healthy person can break down digested sugar into glucose, which then circulates in your blood and waits to enter cells as fuel for your body. But, if you have diabetes, this process breaks down, and blood sugar levels become too high. There are two main types of full-blown diabetes, Types 1 and 2. People with Type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin at all and those with Type 2 diabetes can produce insulin, but their cells don't respond to it. Of these two, Type 2 is far more common, particularly because it’s a lifestyle disease that is affected by your weight and how much exercise you get.

While adjusting your diet is a major step in preventing and managing diabetes, there is more to it than just laying off the candy and there are some serious side effects that you need to prevent. Left untreated, diabetes can have serious affects on your body. For example, people with diabetes have a higher risk for blindness than the general population. They are also more at risk for artery disease that decreases blood flow to the feet causing nerve damage, potentially leading to foot or leg amputation. The good news is that most people can avoid serious complications by properly managing their diabetes.

Unfortunately, diabetes is a particular concern in our community. According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Diabetes Education Program, 14.7 million African Americans have diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes. Lowering this number depends on our ability to reduce and mange risk factors that can lead to diabetes, such as obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. And it’s not just about us—we need to watch out for our children, too. A recent study from the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that African-American girls are more likely to develop diabetes than their peer groups and parents with Type 2 diabetes are likely to have children who also develop the condition.

Thankfully, you can both prevent and manage diabetes primarily on your own. Start eating a healthier diet that is low in sodium and fat and get regular exercise to maintain a healthy weight. It’s also a great idea to learn more about your risk factors. American Diabetes Alert Day is March 23, and the ADA is asking Americans to take The Diabetes Risk Test (www.diabetes.org/alert), a short questionnaire to help you determine your risk for developing the condition. The results will let you know what factors, such as age, family history or weight might be the biggest risk for you. And don’t forget about the kids! Parents, be aware of your children’s blood pressure levels and body mass index, as high levels of these measurements can often be telltale signs of diabetes. And, if you or your children are diagnosed with diabetes, please be sure to take the medication as prescribed by your doctor.

Diabetes medication can be a life saver for those who need it, but these medicines mean nothing if those who need it most can’t afford it. Patients who need help can turn to the Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA), which has connected 6 million patients in need to programs that provide free or nearly free medicines. For more information, patients can call 1-888-4PPA-NOW or visit www.pparx.org.

Diabetes no longer has to be a silent killer. Pay attention to the risk factors for you and your family and make positive health changes today.

Larry Lucas is a vice president for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).