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Diabetes: Risk Factors & You

What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is a long-term health condition that affects how a person’s body processes glucose or sugar. There are several types of diabetes, all can cause high blood sugar levels. 

Whether you have diabetes, are a caregiver or loved one of a person with diabetes, or just want to learn more, our resources will help you understand and navigate the most common types of diabetes.

Diabetes insipidus, on the other hand, is a rare condition where the body has trouble regulating the amount of water in the body. This happens when the body doesn't produce enough of a hormone called vasopressin, which helps the kidneys control the amount of water in the urine. As a result, people with diabetes insipidus often feel thirsty and need to urinate frequently, which can lead to dehydration if not managed properly.

Types of diabetes

Diabetes is a health condition in which most of the body’s cells can’t effectively convert sugar from food (called glucose) into energy. Insulin is the hormone that allows most cells to take up glucose from the bloodstream to use as energy or store for later. Diabetes occurs when the body doesn’t produce insulin and/or can’t use it efficiently, meaning that the body can’t maintain stable blood sugar levels.

  • Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body produces very little or no insulin. It makes up 5 to 10 percent of diabetes worldwide and often begins in childhood.
  • Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body can’t make enough insulin and cannot use available insulin efficiently. Most cases of diabetes are type 2 diabetes.
  • Gestational diabetes is diabetes during pregnancy in someone without type 2 diabetes. It happens when there is insufficient insulin and the available insulin cannot work efficiently due to changes within the mother’s body. It usually resolves after the baby is born.

Diabetes risk factors

Type 1 diabetes: If you have close family members with type 1 diabetes, then you are at a higher risk for the condition than the general population. 20% of people with the condition have a family member with T1D. Screening of family members of individuals with T1D has been proposed to detect new cases earlier.

Type 2 diabetes: You are at greater risk of type 2 diabetes if any of the following apply.

  • You have a family member who has type 2 diabetes
  • You have obesity or excess weight 
  • You have high blood pressure or high cholesterol 
  • You’re over the age of 40
  • You don’t do regular physical activity
  • Your parents or grandparents are Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Asian/ Pacific Islander

Gestational diabetes: You are at greater risk of gestational diabetes if any of the following apply.

  • You have prediabetes
  • You have a family history of diabetes
  • You have obesity or excess weight
  • You’re over the age of 25
  • You are of Hispanic, Black, Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander descent
  • You have previously given birth to an infant weighing more than 9 pounds

Diabetes prevention

Type 1 diabetes: There is currently no way to prevent type 1 diabetes. However, new treatment options, such as teplizumab, may delay the onset of type 1 diabetes. 80% of people with the condition do not have a family history of type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes: It is possible to lower your chances of type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes develops through a combination of factors – elements of lifestyle, such as food, exercise, stress, and sleep play a role, as do family history and genetics. While type 2 diabetes is associated with obesity and weight loss is helpful, the condition is not simply the result of high body weight. To lower the risk of type 2 diabetes (and other diseases), exercise often, eat nutritious food, and maintain a healthy body weight

  • Exercise can reduce insulin resistance, lower body weight, increase muscle mass, and improve overall fitness. All adults should aim for 150 to 300 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like walking), 75 to 150 minutes each week of vigorous aerobic exercise (like running), or some combination of the two types of exercise. Read expert exercise recommendations for people with diabetes here.
  • Healthy Nutrition can help people regulate blood sugar levels, and prevent the progression of type 2 diabetes or other health conditions. Focus on eating vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats, rather than carbohydrates that can spike blood sugar – learn more here.

Diabetes symptoms

Common symptoms of diabetes:

  • Urinating often
  • Feeling very thirsty
  • Feeling very hungry, even though you are eating
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Blurry vision
  • Cuts or bruises that are slow to heal
  • Weight loss, even though you may be eating more

Diabetes can develop slowly without any symptoms – particularly for type 2 diabetes – and many adults with diabetes may not know they have it for years. That’s why early screening for diabetes is important, especially if individuals have risk factors for type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes symptoms appear more suddenly, and type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed in childhood.

Blood sugar swings associated with diabetes treated with medication may cause additional symptoms. Click to learn more about signs of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and what to do about it.

Diagnosing diabetes

To determine if you have diabetes, talk with a healthcare professional. To diagnose type 1 or type 2 diabetes, your healthcare professional will likely recommend one or more of these tests:

  1. An A1C test (also called a glycated hemoglobin test, or HbA1c). This blood test gives an estimate of a person’s average blood sugar levels from the past two or three months. An A1C of 6.5% or higher is considered diabetes (5.7% to 6.4% is considered prediabetes, and an A1C below 5.7% is considered normal).
  2. A fasting plasma glucose (FPG) test measures a person’s blood glucose level after a period of fasting (not eating) for eight hours. An FPG of 126 mg/dl or higher indicates diabetes. (100 to 125 mg/dL is prediabetes and below 100 is normal)
  3. In someone with or without symptoms of high blood sugar (or hyperglycemia), a random plasma glucose test can be used to check blood sugar levels. A blood sugar level above 200 mg/dl indicates diabetes.

Healthcare professionals may also suggest diabetes-related antibody tests to specifically confirm a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes.