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Is diabetes in your genes?

A healthy diet and lifestyle are important for preventing diabetes. But did you know your genes can play a role too?

“Type 2 diabetes has a very strong genetic component,” says Jennifer Gilligan, M.D., a Piedmont endocrinologist.

Even though diabetes can seem like a scary diagnosis, Dr. Gilligan says, it’s important to know about as soon as you can. When you learn how to manage diabetes early, you can take better care of yourself and avoid complications.

“You should never be afraid to gather and know all the facts about your health,” she says.

The role of genetics

Insulin helps your body use blood sugar as energy. With type 2 diabetes, your body either doesn’t react correctly to insulin or just can’t make enough of it.

If someone in your family has diabetes, your chances of developing it are much higher, says Dr. Gilligan. Unfortunately, she adds, rooting out diabetes’ cause isn’t as simple as identifying a single gene. Many genes play roles, and across different populations, different genes go awry and increase risk.

Most people should begin screenings for diabetes at age 45, Dr. Gilligan says. But if you have a family member with diabetes — particularly a first-degree relative like a parent or sibling — your doctor might recommend screenings at age 40 or earlier.

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Increased hunger and/or thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Cuts or bruises that don’t easily heal

If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. Left untreated, diabetes can be dangerous and lead to severe complications.

How to lower your risk

Even if you have genetic risk factors, diabetes is often preventable.

“The best defensive is a strong offense when it comes to type 2 diabetes,” says Dr. Gilligan. She emphasizes that there’s no one-size-fits-all plan, and that no one maintains perfectly healthy habits all the time.

The key, she says, is making changes that are sensible and sustainable for your own life. These may include:

Losing weight can be important too, Dr. Gilligan says, but don’t focus too much on a final goal weight or body mass index. Shedding even a few pounds is better than none at all, especially if you’re genetically predisposed to diabetes.

“People don’t have to get to their ideal BMI,” she points out. Aim for progress, not perfection. Even if you’ve developed prediabetes, you can still stop or delay diabetes’ onset.

What is prediabetes?

If your blood glucose is elevated but not yet at diabetic levels, your doctor may diagnose you with prediabetes. This is a major red flag that should prompt you to take action, Dr. Gilligan says.

Prediabetes typically means you have a 50 percent chance of developing full-on diabetes within the next five years, she says. But that’s far from a sure thing.

With the right diet and lifestyle choices, you can stop diabetes in its tracks — even if it’s in your genes.

“I have seen many patients improve,” Dr. Gilligan says. Patients with prediabetes or diabetes can live full, healthy lives by monitoring their blood sugar and minding their choices.  

“While nobody wants to be diagnosed with a chronic disease, diabetes is not the fearsome monster it used to be,” Dr. Gilligan says.

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