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Risk Factors and Warning Signs of Type 2 Diabetes

What is diabetes?

Having diabetes means that there is too much sugar (glucose) in your blood. Your blood always has some sugar in it because your body needs it for energy. But too much sugar in the blood is not good for your health.

When you digest food, your body breaks down much of the food into sugar. Your blood carries the sugar to the cells of your body for energy. Your body uses a hormone called insulin to help move the sugar from the bloodstream into the cells. Insulin is made by the pancreas. When your body does not have enough insulin, or has trouble using insulin, sugar cannot get into your cells. Sugar builds up in your blood. Too much sugar in your blood can cause many problems.

There are 2 main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2.

  • Type 1 diabetes happens when your pancreas stops making insulin. It usually starts before the age of 35.
  • Type 2 diabetes happens when the body gradually loses its ability to use its own insulin or eventually stops making enough insulin. It usually starts in adulthood but can also start when you are a child.

Doctors don’t know how to prevent type 1 diabetes. However, type 2 diabetes, which is much more common than type 1, can often be prevented by controlling risk factors. You can't change your family history or your age, but you can change your lifestyle. Choosing healthy foods, keeping a healthy weight, and getting regular exercise can keep you from developing type 2 diabetes.

What are the risk factors for type 2 diabetes?

Risk factors for type 2 diabetes that you cannot easily control include:

  • a family history of diabetes
  • a family background of Alaska Native, American Indian, African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American, or Pacific Islander
  • being older than 45 years old
  • gestational diabetes during pregnancy, or giving birth to a baby that weighed 9 pounds or more
  • polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

Risk factors that you may be able to control include:

  • your food choices
  • being overweight
  • an inactive lifestyle with little or no exercise
  • high blood pressure
  • low HDL cholesterol (below 40 milligrams per deciliter for men and below 50 for women), or a high triglyceride level above 150 mg/dL
  • a condition called prediabetes, which is defined by a fasting blood sugar between 100 and 125 mg/dL or a hemoglobin A1C test result between 5.7 and 6.4%

What are the warning signs of diabetes?

One of the problems with type 2 diabetes is that it can be silent for months or years. That’s why it’s so important to be checked periodically if you are at risk. When diabetes does start to cause symptoms, common symptoms are:

  • feeling unusually thirsty
  • urinating a lot
  • unexpected weight gain or weight loss
  • tiredness
  • skin infections
  • slow healing of sores
  • blurry vision
  • repeated yeast infection of the vagina
  • prickling, burning, or itching feeling in your hands or feet.

Why is it important to prevent and treat diabetes?

Untreated diabetes can have serious consequences. Diabetes can damage small blood vessels and nerves, causing problems in the eyes, heart, brain, kidneys, blood vessels, skin, and feet. The risks for high blood pressure, a stroke, and problems with the heart and blood vessels are much higher for people with diabetes. The risks for loss of vision, even blindness, are also increased. Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet are common problems due to nerve damage. Men with diabetes may start having trouble with erections. If your blood sugar level gets too high, you may go into a coma or die.

How can I help myself?

  • If you are over 40 years old--or younger if you are overweight--make sure your healthcare provider checks your blood sugar every year, especially if you have a family history of type 2 diabetes.
  • Have regular medical checkups as often as your healthcare provider recommends. Don't wait for serious problems before making an appointment.
  • Watch for the warning signs of diabetes.
  • Eat a low-fat, diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, fiber, and lean protein. Avoid the “whites”: white sugar, white flour, and white rice. You may want to work with a dietitian to set up a diet program that meets your needs.
  • Exercise regularly, according to your healthcare provider's recommendations.
  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking worsens the effects of diabetes and causes complications to happen earlier.
  • Keep your weight under control, particularly if you have a family history of diabetes.
  • If you have already been diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes and you have the symptoms or warning signs of diabetes, this means your blood sugar is not in good control. To avoid the complications of diabetes, you must see your healthcare provider and work with him or her to get your blood sugar back into the recommended range.
Developed by Ann Carter, MD, for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-06-15
Last reviewed: 2011-03-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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