Urination and thirst are increased, and people may lose weight even if they are not trying to.
Diabetes damages the nerves and causes problems with sensation.
Diabetes damages blood vessels and increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, chronic kidney disease, and vision loss.
Doctors diagnose diabetes by measuring blood sugar levels.
People with diabetes need to follow a healthy diet that is low in refined carbohydrates (including sugar), saturated fat, and processed foods. They also need to exercise and usually take drugs to lower blood sugar levels.
Diabetes mellitus is a disorder in which the amount of sugar in the blood is elevated. Doctors often use the full name diabetes mellitus, rather than diabetes alone, to distinguish this disorder from diabetes insipidus. Diabetes insipidus is a relatively rare disorder that does not affect blood glucose levels but, just like diabetes mellitus, also causes increased urination.
(See also Diabetes Mellitus in Children and Adolescents.)
The three major nutrients that make up most food are carbohydrates, proteins, and fat. Sugars are one of three types of carbohydrates, along with starch and fiber.
There are many types of sugar. Some sugars are simple, and others are complex. Table sugar (sucrose) is made of two simpler sugars called glucose and fructose. Milk sugar (lactose) is made of glucose and a simple sugar called galactose. The carbohydrates in starches, such as bread, pasta, rice, and similar foods, are long chains of different simple sugar molecules. Sucrose, lactose, carbohydrates, and other complex sugars must be broken down into simple sugars by enzymes in the digestive tract before the body can absorb them.
Once the body absorbs simple sugars, it usually converts them all into glucose, which is an important source of fuel for the body. Glucose is the sugar that is transported through the bloodstream and taken up by cells. The body can also make glucose from fats and proteins. Blood "sugar" really means blood glucose.
Insulin, a hormone released from the pancreas (an organ behind the stomach that also produces digestive enzymes), controls the amount of glucose in the blood. Glucose in the bloodstream stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin helps glucose to move from the blood into the cells. Once inside the cells, glucose is converted to energy, which is used immediately, or the glucose is stored as fat or the starch glycogen until it is needed.
The levels of glucose in the blood vary normally throughout the day. They rise after a meal and return to pre-meal levels within about 2 hours after eating. Once the levels of glucose in the blood return to pre-meal levels, insulin production decreases. The variation in blood glucose levels is usually within a narrow range, about 70 to 110 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), or 3.9 to 6.1 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) of blood in healthy people. If people eat a large amount of carbohydrates, the levels may increase more. People older than 65 years tend to have slightly higher levels, especially after eating.
If the body does not produce enough insulin to move the glucose into the cells, or if the cells stop responding normally to insulin (called insulin resistance), the resulting high levels of glucose in the blood and the inadequate amount of glucose in the cells together produce the symptoms and complications of diabetes.
Prediabetes is a condition in which blood glucose levels are too high to be considered normal but not high enough to be labeled diabetes. People have prediabetes if their fasting blood glucose level is between 100 mg/dL (5.6 mmol/L) and 125 mg/dL (6.9 mmol/L) or if their blood glucose level 2 hours after a glucose tolerance test is between 140 mg/dL (7.8 mmol/L) and 199 mg/dL (11.0 mmol/L). Prediabetes carries a higher risk of future diabetes as well as heart disease. Decreasing body weight by 5 to 10% through diet and exercise can significantly reduce the risk of developing future diabetes.
In type 1 diabetes (formerly called insulin-dependent diabetes or juvenile-onset diabetes), the body's immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, and more than 90% of them are permanently destroyed. The pancreas, therefore, produces little or no insulin. Only about 5 to 10% of all people with diabetes have type 1 disease. Most people who have type 1 diabetes develop the disease before age 30, although it can develop later in life.
Scientists believe that an environmental factor—possibly a viral infection or a nutritional factor during childhood or early adulthood—causes the immune system to destroy the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. A genetic predisposition makes some people more susceptible to an environmental factor.
In type 2 diabetes (formerly called non– insulin-dependent diabetes or adult-onset diabetes), the pancreas often continues to produce insulin, sometimes even at higher-than-normal levels, especially early in the disease. However, the body develops resistance to the effects of insulin, so there is not enough insulin to meet the body’s needs. As type 2 diabetes progresses, the insulin-producing ability of the pancreas decreases.
Type 2 diabetes was once rare in children and adolescents but has become more common. However, it usually begins in people older than 30 and becomes progressively more common with age. About 26% of people older than 65 have type 2 diabetes. People of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes: blacks, Asian Americans, American Indians, and people of Spanish or Latin American ancestry who live in the United States have a twofold to threefold increased risk as compared with whites. Type 2 diabetes also tends to run in families.
Obesity is the chief risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes, and 80 to 90% of people with this disorder are overweight or obese. Because obesity causes insulin resistance, obese people need very large amounts of insulin to maintain normal blood glucose levels.
Certain disorders and drugs can affect the way the body uses insulin and can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Examples of common states (conditions) that result in impaired insulin use are
Diabetes also may occur in people with excess production of growth hormone (acromegaly) and in people with certain hormone-secreting tumors. Severe or recurring pancreatitis and other disorders that directly damage the pancreas can lead to diabetes.
The two types of diabetes can have very similar symptoms if the blood glucose is significantly elevated.
The symptoms of high blood glucose levels include
When the blood glucose level rises above 160 to 180 mg/dL (8.9 to 10.0 mmol/L), glucose spills into the urine. When the level of glucose in the urine rises even higher, the kidneys excrete additional water to dilute the large amount of glucose. Because the kidneys produce excessive urine, people with diabetes urinate large volumes frequently (polyuria). The excessive urination creates abnormal thirst (polydipsia). Because excessive calories are lost in the urine, people may lose weight. To compensate, people often feel excessively hungry.
Other symptoms of diabetes include
In people with type 1 diabetes, the symptoms often begin abruptly and dramatically. A serious condition called diabetic ketoacidosis, a complication in which the body produces excess acid, may quickly develop. In addition to the usual diabetes symptoms of excessive thirst and urination, the initial symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis also include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and—particularly in children—abdominal pain. Breathing tends to become deep and rapid as the body attempts to correct the blood’s acidity (see Acidosis), and the breath smells fruity and like nail polish remover. Without treatment, diabetic ketoacidosis can progress to coma and death, sometimes very quickly.
After type 1 diabetes has begun, some people have a long but temporary phase of near-normal glucose levels (honeymoon phase) due to partial recovery of insulin secretion.
People with type 2 diabetes may not have any symptoms for years or decades before they are diagnosed. Symptoms may be subtle. Increased urination and thirst are mild at first and gradually worsen over weeks or months. Eventually, people feel extremely fatigued, are likely to develop blurred vision, and may become dehydrated.
Sometimes during the early stages of diabetes, the blood glucose level is abnormally low at times, a condition called hypoglycemia.
Because people with type 2 diabetes produce some insulin, ketoacidosis does not usually develop even when type 2 diabetes is untreated for a long time. Rarely, the blood glucose levels become extremely high (even exceeding 1,000 mg/dL [55.5 mmol/L]). Such high levels often happen as the result of some superimposed stress, such as an infection or drug use. When the blood glucose levels get very high, people may develop severe dehydration, which may lead to mental confusion, drowsiness, and seizures, a condition called hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state. Many people with type 2 diabetes are diagnosed by routine blood glucose testing before they develop such severely high blood glucose levels.
Diabetes damages blood vessels, causing them to narrow and therefore restricting blood flow. Because blood vessels throughout the body are affected, people may have many complications of diabetes. Many organs can be affected, particularly the following:
High blood glucose levels also cause disturbances in the body's immune system, so people with diabetes mellitus are particularly susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections.
The diagnosis of diabetes is made when people have abnormally high levels of glucose in the blood. Doctors do screening tests on people who are at risk of diabetes but have no symptoms.
Doctors check blood glucose levels in people who have symptoms of diabetes such as increased thirst, urination, or hunger. Additionally, doctors may check blood glucose levels in people who have disorders that can be complications of diabetes, such as frequent infections, foot ulcers, and yeast infections.
To accurately evaluate blood glucose levels, doctors usually use a blood sample taken after people have fasted overnight. Diabetes can be diagnosed if fasting blood glucose levels are higher than 125 mg/dL (6.9 mmol/L). However, it is possible to use blood samples taken after people have eaten. Some elevation of blood glucose levels after eating is normal, but even after a meal the levels should not be very high. Diabetes can be diagnosed if a random (not done after fasting) blood glucose level is higher than 199 mg/dL (11.0 mmol/L).
Doctors can also measure the level of a protein, hemoglobin A1C (also called glycosylated or glycolated hemoglobin), in the blood. Hemoglobin is the red, oxygen-carrying substance in red blood cells. When blood is exposed to high blood glucose levels over a period of time, glucose attaches to the hemoglobin and forms glycosylated hemoglobin. The hemoglobin A1C level (reported as the percentage of hemoglobin that is A1C) reflects long-term trends in blood glucose levels rather than rapid changes.
Measurements of hemoglobin A1C can be used to diagnose diabetes when testing is done by a certified laboratory (not by instruments used at home or in a doctor's office). People with a hemoglobin A1C level of 6.5% or more have diabetes. If the level is between 5.7 and 6.4, they have prediabetes.
Another kind of blood test, an oral glucose tolerance test, may be done in certain situations, such as screening pregnant women for gestational diabetes or testing older people who have symptoms of diabetes but normal glucose levels when fasting. However, it is not routinely used for testing for diabetes because the test can be very cumbersome.
In this test, people fast, have a blood sample taken to determine the fasting blood glucose level, and then drink a special solution containing a large, standard amount of glucose. More blood samples are then taken over the next 2 to 3 hours and are tested to determine whether the glucose in the blood rises to abnormally high levels.
Blood glucose levels are often checked during a routine physical examination. Checking the levels of glucose in the blood regularly is particularly important in older people because diabetes is so common in later life. People may have diabetes, particularly type 2 diabetes, and not know it.
Doctors do not do routine tests to screen for type 1 diabetes even in people at high risk of type 1 diabetes (such as siblings or children of people who have type 1 diabetes). However, it is important to do screening tests in people at risk of type 2 diabetes, including those who
Are over 45 years old
Are overweight or obese
Have a sedentary lifestyle
Have cardiovascular disease
Have a family history of diabetes
Have had diabetes during pregnancy or had a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds (4,000 grams) at birth
Are of African American, Hispanic, Asian American, or American Indian ethnicity
People with these risk factors should be screened for diabetes at least once every three years. Diabetes risk can be estimated using online risk calculators. Doctors may measure fasting blood glucose levels and hemoglobin A1C level, or do an oral glucose tolerance test. If the test results are on the border between normal and abnormal, doctors do the screening tests more often, at least once a year.
Diet, exercise, and education are the cornerstones of treatment of diabetes and often the first recommendations for people with mild diabetes. Weight loss is important for people who are overweight. People who continue to have elevated blood glucose levels despite lifestyle changes, or have very high blood glucose levels and people with type 1 diabetes (no matter their blood glucose levels) also require drugs.
Because complications are less likely to develop if people with diabetes strictly control their blood glucose levels, the goal of diabetes treatment is to keep blood glucose levels as close to the normal range as possible.
Treatment of high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, which can contribute to circulation problems, can help prevent some of the complications of diabetes as well. A low dose of aspirin taken daily is recommended in people with risk factors for heart disease. All people with diabetes who are between 40 and 75 years are given a statin (a drug to decrease cholesterol levels) regardless of cholesterol levels. People younger than 40 or older than 75 years and with an elevated risk of heart disease also should take a statin.
It is helpful for people with diabetes to carry or wear medical identification (such as a bracelet or tag) to alert health care practitioners to the presence of diabetes. This information allows health care practitioners to start life-saving treatment quickly, especially in the case of injury or change in mental status.
Diabetic ketoacidosis and hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state are medical emergencies because they can cause coma and death. Treatment is similar for both and centers around giving intravenous fluids and insulin.
Experts recommend that people keep their blood glucose levels
Hemoglobin A1C levels should be less than 7%.
Because aggressive treatment to reach these goals increases the risk that blood glucose might go too low (hypoglycemia), these goals are adjusted for some people in whom hypoglycemia is particularly undesirable, such as older people.
Some other goals are keeping systolic blood pressure less than 140 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure less than 90 mm Hg. For diabetic people who have heart disease or are at high risk for heart disease, the blood pressure goal is less than 130/80 mm Hg.
People with diabetes benefit greatly from learning about the disorder, understanding how diet and exercise affect their blood glucose levels, and knowing how to avoid complications. A nurse trained in diabetes education can provide information about managing diet, exercising, monitoring blood glucose levels, and taking drugs.
People with diabetes should stop smoking and consume only moderate amounts of alcohol (up to one drink per day for women and two for men).
Diet management is very important in people with both types of diabetes mellitus. Doctors recommend a healthy, balanced diet and efforts to maintain a healthy weight. People with diabetes can benefit from meeting with a dietitian or a diabetes educator to develop an optimal eating plan. Such a plan includes avoiding simple sugars and processed foods, increasing dietary fiber, limiting portions of carbohydrate-rich, and fatty foods (especially saturated fats). People who are taking insulin should avoid long periods between meals to prevent hypoglycemia. Although protein and fat in the diet contribute to the number of calories a person eats, only the number of carbohydrates has a direct effect on blood glucose levels. The American Diabetes Association has many helpful tips on diet, including recipes. Even when people follow a proper diet, cholesterol-lowering drugs are needed to decrease the risk of heart disease.
People with type 1 diabetes and certain people with type 2 diabetes may use carbohydrate counting or the carbohydrate exchange system to match their insulin dose to the carbohydrate content of their meal. "Counting" the amount of carbohydrate in a meal is used to calculate the amount of insulin the person takes before eating. However, the carbohydrate-to-insulin ratio (the amount of insulin taken for each gram of carbohydrate in the meal) varies for each person, and people with diabetes need to work closely with a dietician who has experience in working with people with diabetes to master the technique. Some experts have advised use of the glycemic index (a measure of the impact of an ingested carbohydrate-containing food on the blood glucose level) to delineate between rapid and slowly metabolized carbohydrates, although there is little evidence to support this approach.
Exercise, in appropriate amounts (at least 150 minutes a week spread out over three days), can also help people control their weight and improve blood glucose levels. Because blood glucose levels go down during exercise, people must be alert for symptoms of hypoglycemia. Some people need to eat a small snack during prolonged exercise, decrease their insulin dose, or both.
Many people, especially those with type 2 diabetes, are overweight or obese. Some people with type 2 diabetes may be able to avoid or delay the need to take drugs by achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Weight loss is also important in these people because excess weight contributes to complications of diabetes. When people with diabetes have trouble losing weight with diet and exercise alone, doctors may give weight-loss drugs or recommend bariatric surgery (surgery to cause weight loss).
Proper care of feet and regular eye examinations can help prevent or delay the onset of complications of diabetes. People with diabetes are vaccinated against Streptococcus pneumoniae, and doctors usually recommend they receive annual flu vaccination because people with diabetes are at risk of infection.
There are many drugs used to treat diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes require insulin injections to lower blood glucose levels. Most people with type 2 diabetes require drugs by mouth to lower blood glucose levels but some also require insulin or other injectable drugs.
Monitoring blood glucose levels is an essential part of diabetes care. Routine blood glucose monitoring provides the information needed to make necessary adjustments in drugs, diet, and exercise regimens. It is potentially harmful to wait until there are symptoms of low or high blood glucose levels to check blood glucose.
Many things cause blood glucose levels to change:
The blood glucose levels may jump after people eat foods they did not realize were high in carbohydrates. Emotional stress, an infection, and many drugs tend to increase blood glucose levels. Blood glucose levels increase in many people in the early morning hours because of the normal release of hormones (growth hormone and cortisol), a reaction called the dawn phenomenon. Blood glucose may shoot too high if the body releases certain hormones in response to low blood glucose levels (Somogyi effect). Exercise may cause the levels of glucose in the blood to fall low.
Blood glucose levels can be measured easily at home or anywhere.
A fingerstick glucose test is most often used to monitor blood glucose. Most blood glucose monitoring devices (glucose meters) use a drop of blood obtained by pricking the tip of the finger with a small lancet. The lancet holds a tiny needle that can be jabbed into the finger or placed in a spring-loaded device that easily and quickly pierces the skin. Most people find that the pricking causes only minimal discomfort. Then, a drop of blood is placed on a reagent strip. The strip contains chemicals that undergo changes depending on the glucose level. The glucose meter reads the changes in the test strip and reports the result on a digital display. Some devices allow the blood sample to be obtained from other sites, such as the palm, forearm, upper arm, thigh, or calf. Home glucose meters are smaller than a deck of cards.
Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) systems use a small glucose sensor placed under the skin. The sensor measures blood glucose levels every few minutes. There are two types of CGMs, with different purposes:
Professional CGMs collect continuous blood glucose information over a period of time (72 hours to up to 14 days). Health care providers use this information to make treatment recommendations. Professional CGMs do not provide data to the person with diabetes.
Personal CGMs are used by the person and provide real-time blood glucose data on a small portable monitor or on a connected smart phone. Alarms on the CGM system can be set to sound when blood glucose levels drop too low or climb too high, so the device can help people quickly identify worrisome changes in blood glucose.
Previously, CGMs required frequent calibration with fingerstick glucose testing. Also their results were not accurate enough so that people always had to do a fingerstick to verify a reading on their CGM before calculating a dose of insulin (for example, before meals or to correct a high blood sugar). However, recent technological advances have improved CGMs and promise to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. They can now be worn for up to 14 days, often do not require calibration, and can be used for insulin dosing without fingerstick glucose confirmation. Finally, there are now systems in which the CGM device communicates with insulin pumps to either stop delivery of insulin when blood glucose is dropping (threshold suspend), or to give daily insulin (hybrid closed loop system).
CGM systems are particularly helpful in certain circumstances, such as in people with type 1 diabetes who have frequent, rapid changes in blood glucose (particularly when the glucose levels sometimes go very low), which are difficult to identify with fingerstick testing.
Most people with diabetes should keep a record of their blood glucose levels and report them to their doctor or nurse for advice in adjusting the dose of insulin or the oral antihyperglycemic drug. Many people can learn to adjust the insulin dose on their own as necessary. Some people who have mild or early type 2 diabetes that is well-controlled with one or two drugs may be able to monitor their fingerstick glucose levels relatively infrequently.
Although urine can also be tested for the presence of glucose, checking urine is not a good way to monitor treatment or adjust therapy. Urine testing can be misleading because the amount of glucose in the urine may not reflect the current level of glucose in the blood. Blood glucose levels can get very low or reasonably high without any change in the glucose levels in the urine.
Doctors can monitor treatment using a blood test called hemoglobin A1C. When the blood glucose levels are high, changes occur in hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood. These changes are in direct proportion to the blood glucose levels over an extended period. The higher the hemoglobin A1C level, the higher the person's glucose levels have been. Thus, unlike the blood glucose measurement, which reveals the level at a particular moment, the hemoglobin A1C measurement demonstrates whether the blood glucose levels have been controlled over the previous few months.
People with diabetes aim for a hemoglobin A1C level of less than 7%. Achieving this level is difficult, but the lower the hemoglobin A1C level, the less likely people are to have complications. Doctors may recommend a slightly higher or lower target for certain people depending on their particular health situation. However, levels above 9% show poor control, and levels above 12% show very poor control. Most doctors who specialize in diabetes care recommend that hemoglobin A1C be measured every 3 to 6 months.
People with type 1 diabetes sometimes receive transplantation of an entire pancreas or of only the insulin-producing cells from a donor pancreas. This procedure may allow people with type 1 diabetes mellitus to maintain normal glucose levels. However, because immunosuppressant drugs must be given to prevent the body from rejecting the transplanted cells, pancreas transplantation is usually done only in people who have serious complications due to diabetes or who are receiving another transplanted organ (such as a kidney) and will require immunosuppressant drugs anyway.
The term brittle diabetes has been used to refer to people who have dramatic recurrent swings in blood glucose levels, often for no apparent reason. However, this term is no longer used. People with type 1 diabetes may have more frequent swings in blood glucose levels because insulin production is completely absent. Infection, delayed movement of food through the stomach, and other hormonal disorders may also contribute to blood glucose swings. In all people who have difficulty controlling blood glucose, doctors look for other disorders that might be causing the problem and also give people additional education on how to monitor diabetes and take their drugs.
Older people need to follow the same general principles of diabetes management—education, diet, exercise, and drugs—as younger people. However, risking hypoglycemia (a low blood glucose level) by trying to strictly control blood glucose levels may actually be harmful for people with multiple medical problems.
Managing diabetes can be more difficult for older people. Poor eyesight may make it hard for them to read glucose meters and dose scales on insulin syringes. They may have problems manipulating the syringe because they have arthritis or Parkinson disease or have had a stroke.
In addition to learning about diabetes itself, older people may have to learn how to fit management of diabetes in with their management of other disorders. Learning about how to avoid complications, such as dehydration, skin breakdown, and circulation problems, and to manage factors that can contribute to complications of diabetes, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, is especially important. Such problems become more common as people age, whether they have diabetes or not.
Many older people have difficulty following a healthy, balanced diet that can control blood glucose levels and weight. Changing long-held food preferences and dietary habits may be hard. Some older people have other disorders that can be affected by diet and may not understand how to integrate the dietary recommendations for their various disorders.
Some older people cannot control what they eat because someone else is cooking for them—at home or in a nursing home or other institution. When people with diabetes do not do their own cooking, the people who shop and prepare meals for them must also understand the diet that is needed. Older people and their caregivers usually benefit from meeting with a dietitian to develop a healthy, feasible eating plan.
Older people may have a difficult time adding exercise to their daily life, particularly if they have not been active or if they have a disorder that limits their movement, such as arthritis. However, they may be able to add exercise to their usual routine. For example, they can walk instead of drive or climb the stairs instead of take the elevator. Also, many community organizations offer exercise programs designed for older people.
Taking the drugs used to treat diabetes, particularly insulin, may be difficult for some older people. For those with vision problems or other problems that make accurately filling a syringe difficult, a caregiver can prepare the syringes ahead of time and store them in the refrigerator. People whose insulin dose is stable may purchase prefilled syringes. Prefilled insulin pen devices may be easier for people with physical limitations. Some of these devices have large numbers and easy-to-turn dials.
Poor vision, limited manual dexterity due to arthritis, tremor, or stroke, or other physical limitations may make monitoring blood glucose levels more difficult for older people. However, special monitors are available. Some have large numerical displays that are easier to read. Some provide audible instructions and results. Some monitors read blood glucose levels through the skin and do not require a blood sample. People can consult a diabetes educator to determine which meter is most appropriate.
The most common complication of treating high blood glucose levels is low blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia). The risk is greatest for older people who are frail, who are sick enough to require frequent hospital admissions, or who are taking several drugs. Of all available drugs to treat diabetes, long-acting sulfonylurea drugs are most likely to cause low blood glucose levels in older people. When they take these drugs, they are also more likely to have serious symptoms, such as fainting and falling, and to have difficulty thinking or using parts of the body due to low blood glucose levels.
Hypoglycemia in older people may be less obvious than in younger people. Confusion caused by hypoglycemia may be mistaken for dementia or the sedative effect of drugs. Also, people who have difficulty communicating (as after a stroke or as a result of dementia) may not be able to let anyone know they are having symptoms.
Type 2 diabetes can be prevented with lifestyle changes. People who are overweight and lose as little as 7 percent of their body weight and who increase physical activity (for example, walking 30 minutes per day) can decrease their risk of diabetes mellitus by more than 50%. Metformin and acarbose, drugs that are used to treat diabetes, may reduce the risk of diabetes in people with impaired glucose regulation.
The following are some English-language resources that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of the resources.
American Diabetes Association: Comprehensive information on diabetes, including resources for living with diabetes
JDRF (previously called Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation): General information on type 1 diabetes mellitus
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: General information on diabetes, including on the latest research and community outreach programs
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