Diabetes Risk Factors: Symptoms, Causes, Risks (2023)
Time to read 11 min
Time to read 11 min
Diabetes is a condition that sneaks up on you, threatening to wreak havoc on your body without warning. That's what it's like for millions of people living with diabetes.
But there's hope.
By understanding diabetes risk factors, recognizing the subtle symptoms, and taking proactive steps to prevent and manage diabetes, you can protect yourself from its devastating consequences.
Diabetes mellitus is a chronic condition when your blood glucose levels are too high.
Normally, when you consume carbohydrates, they get broken down into glucose, which is then burned by insulin to produce energy for bodily functions.
However, people with diabetes usually have a problem with their insulin levels making it hard for them to keep their blood sugar level in the optimum range.
Luckily, managing diabetes is easy with lifestyle changes, medical treatment, a balanced diet, and healthy weight management.
There are several causes of diabetes, each depending on the type of diabetes you have.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This leads to a complete deficiency of insulin production, meaning there's almost nothing between you and high blood sugar.
The exact trigger for this autoimmune response is unknown, but genetics, environmental factors, and viral infections are among the top theories.
Type 1 diabetes usually occurs in children and adolescents, so it's often called juvenile diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is caused by one of two things: impaired insulin secretion or insulin resistance.
Usually, the pancreas releases insulin, which forces glucose into your body's cells to be burnt for energy. The amount of insulin secreted is usually proportional to the amount of carbs you consume.
However, sometimes, the pancreas can't keep up with the amount of insulin your body needs, especially if you follow an unhealthy diet. When your pancreas can't secrete enough insulin to stabilize your blood sugar levels, you develop type 2 diabetes.
Alternatively, your pancreas might be secreting sufficient insulin, but your body's cells have become less responsive to the insulin. This is called insulin resistance.
Pregnant mothers often develop gestational diabetes due to hormonal changes and insulin resistance. As the placenta grows, it produces hormones that interfere with insulin's ability to regulate blood sugar levels. Additionally, the growing baby demands more glucose, further straining the mother's insulin production.
This is usually a temporary form of diabetes, and the mother's blood sugar levels return to normal after delivery.
Not all mothers experience gestational diabetes. If your doctor suspects your blood sugar levels are getting out of control during pregnancy, they'll usually order an oral glucose tolerance test to diagnose gestational diabetes.
Prediabetes is a condition where blood sugar levels are higher than usual but not high enough to diagnose diabetes. It is often a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
This is usually caused by an early stage of insulin resistance.
There are also a few rare types of diabetes, including:
Type 3C Diabetes occurs when the pancreas is damaged, preventing it from producing sufficient insulin. This damage can result from pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas), pancreatic cancer, cystic fibrosis, or even pancreatectomy (surgical pancreas removal).
Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA): This is also caused by an autoimmune reaction, much like type 1 diabetes, but it develops slowly. It mainly occurs in adults over 30.
Monogenic Diabetes: It’s caused by a genetic mutation that affects your body's insulin production and efficiency.
The symptoms of diabetes are relatively common regardless of what type you have.
Here are some of the top signs and symptoms to look out for:
Polydipsia (increased thirst): Feeling extremely thirsty despite drinking plenty of fluids.
Dry mouth: Experiencing persistent dryness in the mouth, which may lead to issues like bad breath, dry lips, or a burning sensation in the throat.
Frequent urination: Needing to urinate more frequently than usual, especially during the night, which could disrupt sleep patterns.
Exhaustion: Feeling unusually fatigued, weak, or lacking energy, making daily activities seem more challenging.
Vision problems: Having blurred vision or experiencing difficulty focusing, which could impact reading, driving, or other everyday tasks.
Unexplained weight loss: Losing weight unexpectedly without changing your diet or exercise patterns.
Numb, tingling sensations in the hands or feet: Experiencing abnormal sensations like numbness, tingling, or pins and needles in the extremities, which could indicate nerve damage.
Slow-healing sores: Wounds or scrapes taking longer than expected to heal might suggest that the body's natural healing processes are impaired due to high blood sugar levels.
Frequent infections: Recurring fungal infections on the skin or in the vagina because the high blood sugar creates an ideal medium for microbial growth.
Risk factors for type 1 diabetes aren't as straightforward or as common as those for type 2 diabetes.
However, the most common risk factor is family history. If you have a first-degree relative, such as a parent or a sibling, with type 1 diabetes, you have an increased risk of developing it.
Another common risk factor is age. While you can develop type 1 diabetes at any age, it's most common in children and young adults. The older you get, the smaller your risk of developing this disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), white people in the US are more likely to develop type 1 diabetes than people of African American, Hispanic, or Latin descent.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes mellitus. It accounts for about 90-95% of all cases of diabetes worldwide and comes with tons of risk factors.
However, as common as it is, type 2 diabetes is easily preventable if you know what risk factors to look out for and avoid.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), there are generally two types of risk factors: modifiable and non-modifiable.
Modifiable risk factors, as the name suggests, are those that you can modify, change, or do something about. Paying attention to these risk factors can help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes significantly.
Here are the most important modifiable risk factors to start working on:
Being overweight or obese is a significant risk factor because excess body fat can increase insulin resistance.
When you gain weight, your body stores more glucose and, in turn, produces more insulin. However, if you continue to gain unhealthy weight, your body becomes less responsive to insulin, leading to high blood sugar levels and increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
For example, if you weigh 300 lbs, losing just 15 lbs can make a big difference and dramatically reduce your risk. Plus, the more weight you lose, the lower your risk becomes.
A body mass index (BMI) calculator can help you determine a healthy weight range based on height.
Physical inactivity is another significant risk factor. A sedentary lifestyle increases your insulin resistance risk, leading to type 2 diabetes.
On the other hand, being physically active can help improve insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise weekly. You can also do 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity weekly, but make sure not to overexert yourself when you first start out.
Ideally, either exercise should be combined with at least two weekly strength-training sessions.
High blood pressure, especially if left untreated, can lead to heart disease, kidney problems, blood vessel disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Keeping track of your blood pressure and staying below 130/80 mm Hg can help reduce your chances of developing diabetes.
A poor diet can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Consuming high amounts of processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats can lead to insulin resistance.
A healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources can help regulate blood sugar levels and maintain a healthy weight. This is because when you eat healthy foods, your insulin levels don't spike as much, resulting in fewer fluctuations.
So, try to limit the consumption of added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats. A well-balanced diet and regular physical activity can help prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes significantly.
Alcohol can cause inflammation in your pancreas, which affects its ability to produce insulin. It also affects your body's ability to absorb essential nutrients, which increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
Try to limit your alcohol intake or, even better, cut it off completely to minimize your risk of diabetes.
Being constantly stressed is another risk factor for diabetes. Not only does stress affect your mental well-being, but it has significant physical manifestations as well.
Stress causes your body to release cortisol, which increases your blood sugar level and impairs your insulin sensitivity.
Try meditating, walking, or doing any stress-relieving activities you enjoy regularly.
Sleep improves your mood, regulates your blood glucose level, and benefits almost every organ in your body. When you don't get enough sleep, your body becomes more resistant to insulin, and it becomes harder to manage your blood glucose.
The CDC recommends at least seven hours of high-quality sleep to stay healthy and minimize the risk of diabetes.
If you suffer from insomnia or sleep apnea, talk to your healthcare provider about finding a solution.
Non-modifiable risk factors are things that are out of your control. They're usually tied to genetics, letting you know whether you're more likely to develop diabetes.
Having any of these non-modifiable risk factors should encourage you to pay more attention to your diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits.
Having family members who have type 2 diabetes increases your risk of developing the condition yourself. The closer the relative, such as with first-degree relatives, the more likely you might become diabetic.
Your doctor can help you determine the likelihood of developing diabetes by reviewing your family history.
According to AHA, the following ethnic backgrounds are more likely to develop diabetes:
Hispanic or Latino-American
Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 is much more common in adults, particularly those over 40. So the older you get, the greater your risk of developing this diabetes type.
Mothers who experienced gestational diabetes at some point in their lives are much more likely to develop diabetes again later on.
Several factors can increase your risk of developing gestational diabetes during pregnancy, such as:
Being overweight or obese before pregnancy
Having a family history of diabetes
Having polycystic ovary syndrome
Previous encounter with gestational diabetes
If you've previously had a baby weighing over 9 lbs (4.1 kg)
Diabetes can lead to a range of severe complications and risks, many of which can be prevented or delayed with proper care.
Here are some of the most significant complications or risks to look out for:
Hypoglycemia: Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can happen when you skip a meal or exercise vigorously without eating enough carbohydrates for energy. When your blood sugar level drops, you experience shakiness, dizziness, confusion, and slurred speech.
Hyperglycemia: Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, happens when you don't take your diabetes medications correctly or if you consume too many sugary foods or drinks.
Nerve Damage: Elevated blood sugar levels often lead to nerve damage. This results in a numb, tingling sensation in the extremities, such as the hands and feet.
Kidney Disease: Diabetes is a leading cause of kidney disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). One in every three diabetics develops a kidney problem, so regular kidney function tests are crucial for diabetics.
Eye Damage: Diabetics have a higher risk of eye damage, leading to blurred vision, cataracts, glaucoma, and even blindness. Ensure a dilated eye examination at least once a year to avoid diabetic retinopathy.
Heart Disease: Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease, including heart attacks, strokes, and atherosclerosis (disease of the blood vessels).
Most women who experience gestational diabetes during pregnancy have a perfectly healthy baby. However, if high blood sugar is left untreated, it can lead to several complications for the mother and the baby.
Here are a few examples of complications that can occur for the mother:
Preeclampsia: Preeclampsia is when your blood pressure rises significantly, and your kidneys suffer damage during pregnancy. This leads to swollen feet and hands and a high amount of protein in the urine.
Placental Abruption: This is a case where the placenta separates from the uterus, which can be dangerous for the baby's health.
Future Gestational Diabetes: When left untreated, there's a higher chance of experiencing gestational diabetes once again in future pregnancies.
Uncontrolled gestational diabetes can cause a few complications that affect the baby, including:
Excessive Growth: The excess blood sugar passes the placenta and causes your baby's pancreas to produce more insulin, which results in excessive growth. This can make it challenging to have a natural delivery, and you'll likely require a C-section because the baby is too big.
Death: If left untreated, gestational diabetes could lead to the baby's death either before delivery or shortly after.
Type 2 Diabetes: Your baby might develop type 2 diabetes later in life and is much more likely to suffer from obesity.
Hypoglycemia: Your baby might suffer from low blood sugar shortly after delivery.
Diabetes is a serious health condition with severe consequences if left unchecked.
However, by understanding the risk factors, recognizing the symptoms, and taking proactive steps to prevent and manage diabetes, you can reduce the risk and improve your overall health.
Stay informed and stay healthy!
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