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Diabetes 101: A Common Illness Defined

By Jayne Morgan, M.D.
Executive Director of Health and Community Education

Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects how your body metabolizes sugar. Left unmanaged, it can cause serious health issues, but people who understand and embrace the measures necessary can live a full and vibrant life.

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 resistance). When your body doesn’t produce enough insulin, it is unable to convert glucose to energy. This results in too much blood glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream, which can cause serious health issues over time if not managed.

So, how does insulin work and why is it important?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps control your blood sugar level. Insulin allows cells to absorb glucose and use it for energy. If your pancreas doesn’t work as it should, it may not make or release enough insulin to control your blood sugar, which in turn can damage your heart, eyes, feet, kidneys and nerves.

How many different types of diabetes are there?

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 is when the pancreas makes very little or no insulin. It 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 people over 40. It is unfortunately increasing rapidly in children and is also closely associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Type 2 diabetes may not display symptoms until very late in the course of the disease.

What are the risk factors?

Risk factors for diabetes depend 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 and prediabetes: More common in people who are overweight or obese.

Gestational diabetes: Occurs during pregnancy and is most often temporary, correcting itself after the mother delivers.

What is prediabetes?

Prediabetes is a potentially 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 not addressed, but is most often reversible.

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?

The complications of diabetes, especially affecting the heart, can be severe. The longer you have poorly controlled diabetes, the greater your risk of serious complications. The good news is, properly managed diabetes can often be little more than a slight inconvenience.

Can diabetes be prevented?

Type 1 diabetes, unfortunately, cannot be prevented. However, healthy lifestyle choices can help prevent and treat Type 2 diabetes and 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. Increase your exercise routine and work to maintain a healthy weight. Remember that walking is a great way to exercise, burn calories, control weight and reduce the risk of diabetes.

Diabetes is a partnership

If you have diabetes or suspect you might, a very important component in the ability to thrive with diabetes is a partnership with a primary care physician who listens, understands your individual struggles and is dedicated to working with you to ensure diabetes is a mere blip on the radar of your life. If you don’t have a primary care physician who meets those standards, you can find one here.


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