MONDAY, April 23 (HealthDay News) -- This spring's finale of The Sopranos will mark the end of Aida Turturro's star turn as big, bad sister of America's most famous TV mobster.
But the actress who garnered national acclaim for her riveting portrayal of the conniving "Janice Soprano" is taking center stage to play a perhaps more important role: diabetes spokeswoman.
In 2001, just one year after receiving an Emmy nomination for her work on the acclaimed television series, Turturro was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Now, just one week after wrapping up her final shoot on the much-lauded HBO series, she has embarked on a nationwide tour of diabetes centers and hospital support groups to promote a proactive approach to living well with an illness that now strikes almost 21 million American children and adults.
"It's scary at first," said Turturro, recalling her initial diagnosis. "And it's really a very, very hard disease, because it never ends. So, it can feel overwhelming. But it's not, once you get started dealing with it. And I just want people to know that it's your life, and dealing with it has got to be your priority."
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the vast majority of diabetics have the same form of the disease as Turturro. Sometimes called insulin resistance, this version of the disease is triggered by the body's inability to properly use the naturally occurring hormone insulin to convert sugar and starch into usable energy.
Between 5 percent and 10 percent of diabetics have a type 1 form of diabetes, which results from the body's failure to produce enough insulin in the first place.
Another 54 million Americans are deemed "pre-diabetic," because their blood glucose levels register above normal but below diabetic levels.
Many factors -- rather than a single smoking gun -- have been associated with a higher risk for ultimately developing full-blown diabetes, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a sedentary lifestyle and a family history of the disease.
"It's actually pretty rampant in my family," Turturro pointed out in a recent interview. "I have a history of it on both sides -- my mother, my aunt, my grandfather on one side and my grandmother on the other side, and some of my distant relatives, too. But I didn't come from a family who sat me down and explained it, so I had no idea about the risk."
Bringing such information to light and demystifying diabetes by example is the goal of Turturro's current tour, which is being sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Sanofi Aventis. The company makes Lantus, a once-daily, injectable insulin that Turturro began taking about four years ago.
Turturro first spoke out about diabetes three years ago and has already brought her take-charge message to diabetes patients and caregivers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and Detroit, with plans to head to Miami this month.
In fact, her work on diabetes is not Turturro's first foray into public health advocacy. In 2002, she served as spokeswoman for an arthritis awareness campaign that was sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation and Centocor, the maker of a popular arthritis medication. She has battled rheumatoid arthritis -- a painful autoimmune disease involving inflammation of the joints-- since the age of 12.
But Turturro insisted that she hasn't always been such a paragon of empowerment.