Among the celebrity's appearances were a slot on CBS's The Late Show with David Letterman in the United States, where he first revealed the diagnosis, and an interview with the BBC in London.
"With Tom Hanks…you see someone who's not particularly overweight, who doesn't appear to lead an unhealthy lifestyle, and I think it's a very important message that anybody can develop diabetes, [and] that we remove the social stigma associated with it," Robert E. Ratner, MD, chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association, told Medscape Medical News.
Diabetes is a very treatable disease with good guidelines for effective treatment, he stressed.
Hanks, who is 57 and does not fit the stereotype of an overweight couch potato, told Letterman that he had had high-normal blood glucose for the past 20 years. But recently, his doctor informed him he had crossed the line from prediabetes to diabetes.
"I went to the doctor, [who said], 'You know, those high blood-sugar numbers you've been dealing with since you were 36? Well, you've graduated! You've got type 2 diabetes, young man," Hanks said on The Late Show. In other interviews, the actor added that he gets regular exercise, eats right, takes certain medications, and, so far, feels fine.
Positive Effects From Positive Celebrity Role Models
Dr. Peters says that by revealing that he has diabetes and is coping well, Tom Hanks has provided a very positive role model, with some of her patients telling her this week that they felt a bit better about having diabetes after hearing the news.
When celebrities like Hanks disclose that they have a disease, it can have a big impact, generating important discussions, she said, noting that this is what happened recently when Angelina Jolie revealed her decision to undergo a preventive mastectomy.
In the same way that Hollywood helped take away the glamour of cigarette smoking, it can perhaps contribute to increased awareness of prediabetes and diabetes, Dr. Peters hopes.
Several other well-known American personalities have also previously revealed they have diabetes, she noted. Actress Halle Berry presents a strong image of someone with type 2 diabetes, as does talk show host Larry King. And chef Paula Deen — despite the controversy surrounding her — "touched a lot of people in the South" when she revealed she had type 2 diabetes, notes Dr. Peters.
"People are going to listen to her more than me. I'm not famous. I'm just a doctor," she quipped.
Meanwhile, Mary Tyler Moore has championed type 1 diabetes, says Dr. Ratner, who reflected on her admirable ability to raise awareness of this disease as well as money to support diabetes research.
Other famous US names who have revealed they have type 1 diabetes include Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, singer Nick Jonas, and Bret Michaels, vocalist from the rock band Poison, who pledged his $250,000 winnings from TV's Celebrity Apprentice to the American Diabetes Association.
"If we can use [Tom Hanks's disclosure] as a moment for education and awareness, that's positive," said Dr. Ratner.
But Are There Also Unintended Consequences?
There are also potential downsides to these types of medical disclosures if a celebrity is a poor role model, however, said Dr. Peters.
"You don't want to have pictures of Tom Hanks with his type 2 diabetes smoking cigarettes and eating potato chips," she said, although she added quickly that this is unlikely, noting, "The worst…he ate [was] a box of chocolates in Forrest Gump."
And poorly informed celebrities might also spread misinformation, which was not the case with Hanks, she was keen to stress.
However, some media reports did mention that Hanks had gained and lost extreme amounts of weight for different film roles over the years and implied that this could have contributed to the diabetes, which is misleading, said Dr. Ratner.
"There is no question that in individuals who are at risk for developing diabetes, weight gain is something that can tip you over," he observed.
However, "there is no good evidence that weight cycling — gaining weight, losing weight — has a long-term effect on your risk of diabetes," he stressed.
Bottom Line: Celebrity Draws Attention to a Common Disease
The US Center for Disease Control currently estimates that 26 million people in the United States have diabetes (type 1 or type 2) — including 6 to 7 million people who don't know they have it — and about 79 million people have prediabetes.
Studies such as the Diabetes Prevention Program, STOP-NIDDM, DREAM, and ACT NOW have shown that lifestyle changes and pharmaceutical therapy can significantly reduce the development of diabetes in patients with prediabetes, Dr. Ratner noted.
"It is unfortunate that it takes a celebrity to bring attention to a disease that's affecting 26 million," he commented.
"Having said that, I commend [Tom Hanks] for his frankness and hope that we can utilize his public statement to help educate clinicians as well as patients about the risks of diabetes, the importance of making the diagnosis, and appropriate therapy," he concluded.
Dr. Peters is on the advisory board of Medscape Diabetes & Endocrinology.