FRONT ROYAL — Prediabetes affects 86 million people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but 90% of them don’t know they have it.

To help reduce risk factors for area residents, a free year-long program through Valley Health is available in Woodstock, Winchester and Front Royal.

The Diabetes Prevention Program taking place at Warren Memorial, Shenandoah Memorial and Winchester Medical Center is available to any adults who don’t yet have diabetes, who score a 5 or higher on a prediabetes test and are willing to commit to a year of education and intensive lifestyle changes that include altering eating habits, increasing exercise levels and decreasing stress.

“It’s so simple and so hard at the same time,” said Barry Nicholson, who completed the Front Royal program on March 2.

Much of the program is about making better choices, which can be tough to implement at first.

When it comes to eating, “It’s me against the bad guys,” said Scotty Reid.

“As the weeks went by,” said Patricia Hagerty, “I got better at figuring it out.”

As a group, the eight participants who made it to the finish line lost a total of 130 pounds, said Arlene Figgins, a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator.

“We lost a whole person,” joked participant Debbie Midkiff.

“It’s really exciting what you all have invested in and done,” Figgins told the group at their graduation ceremony.

Type 2 diabetes, which generally appears in adulthood, is the most common form of diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

“Type 2 means that your body doesn’t use insulin properly,” the ADA says at the website diabetes.org/diabetes/type-2. “[W]hile some people can control their blood sugar levels with healthy eating and exercise, others may need medication or insulin to manage it.”

For some people with prediabetes, the site says, “early treatment can actually return blood sugar levels to a normal range.”

Risk factors for Type 2 diabetes shared by the CDC include:

• Family history

• High fasting blood sugars

• Impaired glucose tolerance

• High blood pressure

• High cholesterol

• Being overweight/obese

• Not being physically active

Age, gender and pregnancy history also play a factor, and a test that Valley Health is offering prospective program participants yields higher points for women who have had gestational diabetes, as well as men and anyone 40 or older.

Though diabetes is fairly common in the U.S., affecting a third of the population throughout their lifetime, it’s a serious disease that can cause blindness and lead to an early death.

Midkiff told the group that a friend of hers with diabetes had a leg amputated just last week.

But while the effects of diabetes can be life-changing, so can treatments that reduce the risk of diabetes. Valley Health is offering the program for free as part of its mission to serve community health.

The program, which starts out meeting with participants every week, later decreases meetings to every other week and eventually once a month, said Jordan Dolewski, a clinical dietitian with Valley Health.

A year is a long time to commit to a program, she said, and as a result, some people drop out along the way.

Upcoming classes starting in April are looking to sign up 10 to 12 people, she said.

“Our participants are awesome,” she said. “They do all the work.” Because they meet so often, she said, they “have become a family.”

Nicholson said he liked the support that Figgins and Dolewski offered the group.

“Having your watchful eyes on us is helpful,” he said.

“I like that you don’t have to give up anything,” Midkiff said of the program.

The program stresses the “old school” advice of counting calories and fat grams, said Hagerty.

“It worked, and it was so simple,” she said.

Reid said he appreciates that it helped him work through the problems that arthritis has presented in his health management efforts.

The course has “answered a lot of questions,” he said. “It’s given me some more tools to work with.”

Warren Memorial Hospital will host an information session for its next class at 10 a.m. today in the third floor conference room.

Woodstock and Winchester are also planning upcoming programs at Shenandoah Memorial Hospital and Winchester Medical Center. For more information, call Tracey Ramey at 540-636-0571.

Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com