With diabetes the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, affecting over 34 million people, it makes sense that the month of November is designated American Diabetes Month. But what exactly is diabetes? What are its risk factors and symptoms? And can you prevent it? We asked the physicians at Gaston Medical Partners to provide some clarity.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes occurs when your body cannot properly process blood sugar, also known as glucose. The food you eat is broken down into sugar, which is released in your bloodstream. When your blood sugar rises, your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin, which allows the glucose to reach the cells in your tissues and muscles, and fuel your body. With diabetes, your body either doesn’t produce insulin or doesn’t properly use it. Without appropriate levels of insulin, higher amounts of blood sugar will remain in your bloodstream, which can lead to a variety of health issues.
What are the different types?
Prediabetes – Approximately one in three people are diagnosed with prediabetes, which refers to having higher than normal blood sugar. Without making appropriate changes, those with prediabetes are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes – Most often appearing in childhood or adolescence, type 1 diabetes occurs when your body does not produce insulin. Type 1 affects 5%-10% of those with diabetes, and it is not preventable.
Type 2 diabetes – The most common kind of diabetes (accounting for 90%-95% of cases), type 2 generally affects those over the age of 40. With type 2, your body doesn’t properly use insulin and you need to work to control blood sugar levels. Implementing changes to your diet or incorporating regular exercise into your routine can help manage it, or you may need medicine to help regulate your glucose.
Gestational diabetes – Gestational diabetes can occur during pregnancy in women who have no previous history of diabetes. It can increase the baby’s health risks, so women diagnosed with gestational diabetes should work with their doctors to help manage their blood sugar levels for the rest of the pregnancy. Developing gestational diabetes can put women at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life, but gestational diabetes typically resolves on its own after the baby is delivered.
What are the risk factors?
Several factors put you at increased risk of developing diabetes, namely being overweight, not exercising, having a family history (parent or sibling), being over the age of 45, or having gestational diabetes when pregnant. Racial identity can also play a role, with African American, Hispanic/Latinx, American Indian and Alaska Native at higher risk.
What are the symptoms?
With type 1 diabetes, symptoms can come on more suddenly and be more severe. While some people with prediabetes or type 2 may not exhibit any symptoms, typical symptoms of type 1 include increased thirst, frequent urination, hunger, fatigue, ketones in urine (that show a lack of insulin), and unexplained weight loss.
What can you do?
While diabetes is not completely preventable, you can lower your risk factors by incorporating a healthy, active lifestyle. Eating a well-balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight, combined with regular exercise, can help keep diabetes at bay, or help you to manage your blood sugar levels should you develop it. If you have any concerns about your risk factors for diabetes, or want to discuss testing your blood sugar, speak to your primary care physician for guidance.