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Diabetes 101: A Common Illness Defined

By Jayne Morgan, M.D.

Diabetes is a disease caused by the insufficient production of insulin in the body. The onset of diabetes can stem from your body not making enough insulin, or your body not responding to insulin (insulin resistant). When your body doesn’t produce enough insulin, it’s unable to convert glucose to energy; resulting in too much blood glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream. Over time, that can cause serious health problems as well as increase your risk of death by 50%.

So how does insulin work and why is it important?

Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas that acts by lowering the amount of sugar in the body.

What are 5 body systems affected by diabetes?

  • Heart
  • Eyes
  • Nerves
  • Feet
  • Kidneys

What happens if diabetes goes untreated?

If left untreated, diabetes can lead to devastating complications such as blindness, kidney failure, amputations, nerve damage, and heart disease. In fact, diabetes is a significant risk factor for heart attacks.

How many different types of diabetes are there? What are the symptoms?

Diabetes comes in two forms, Type 1 and Type 2. Symptoms of diabetes can vary and will depend on your blood sugar levels.

Type 1 diabetes can start at any age, but more often begins in childhood or teenage years. Symptoms tend to be severe and can come on suddenly. Family history may also play a significant role, as well as environmental factors.

Type 2 diabetes, the more prevalent type, can develop at any age but is more common in those over 40. It is unfortunately increasing rapidly in children and is also closely associated with obesity. One may not display symptoms until very late in the course of the disease.

What are the risk factors?

Risk factors for diabetes depends on the type.

Type 1 diabetes: Race or ethnicity raises your risk of developing Type 1 diabetes and can also play a role in developing Type 2 diabetes. Although it's unclear why, certain populations — including Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian Americans — are at a higher risk.

Type 2 diabetes: Pre-diabetes, and gestational diabetes (occurs during pregnancy): These conditions are more common in people who are overweight or obese.

Prediabetes? Is that a thing?

Yes. Prediabetes is real and is potentially a reversible early stage of diabetes. Prediabetes happens when blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not quite high enough to qualify for the technical definition of diabetes. However, prediabetes is a warning sign and heralds the onset of diabetes if intervention is not undertaken.

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

Some of the more common symptoms of both Types 1 and 2 diabetes are:

  • Frequent urination
  • Fatigue
  • Thirst
  • Weight loss
  • Blurred vision
  • Increase in infections

Should I be concerned about complications?

Absolutely as the complications of diabetes are many and can be severe, especially cardiac complications. The rule of thought is: the longer you have diabetes (especially poorly controlled diabetes), the greater your risk of serious complication. These complications can be disabling, and include:

  • Heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease. Diabetes severely increases the risk of heart attacks and is a major and primary risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
  • Erectile Dysfunction.
  • Nerve damage. Tingling, burning, pain, and numbness of the hands and feet; known as diabetic neuropathy.
  • Alzheimer’s disease. More common among Type 2 diabetics.
  • Kidney damage. Sometimes leading to dialysis known as diabetic nephropathy.
  • Eye damage. The end result could be complete blindness; known as diabetic retinopathy.
  • Infections. Generally bacterial and fungal infections.
  • Hearing impairment.

Can diabetes be prevented?

Unfortunately, for Type 1 diabetes, the answer is no. However, healthy lifestyle choices can help prevent and treat Type 2 diabetes as well as prediabetes. These include eating a diet high in vegetables, reducing sugars in the diet, increasing exercise and losing weight.

Your doctor may prescribe medications as an option including oral diabetes drugs. If you have prediabetes, have your blood sugar checked at least once a year to make sure you aren’t progressing to Type 2.

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