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Facts About Diabetes

What is diabetes?

When you have diabetes, your body has a problem with insulin. It doesn't make enough insulin. Or it can't use the insulin it makes (insulin resistance). Insulin is a hormone. It helps sugar (glucose) enter your cells to be used as energy. Without insulin, too much sugar stays in your blood.

There are 3 main types of diabetes. They are called type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes.

What is prediabetes?

Prediabetes is when blood sugar levels are higher than normal. But they aren't high enough to be diabetes. Many people with prediabetes will have type 2 diabetes within 10 years. More than 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. have prediabetes. Most of them don't know they have it. They don't know the health risks it causes. Prediabetes raises the risk for heart disease and stroke.

Things that raise your risk for prediabetes include:

  • Excess weight

  • Being age 35 or older

  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)

  • History of gestational diabetes

  • Family history of diabetes

  • Not being physically active

You have a higher risk of prediabetes if you are:

  • African American

  • Hispanic American

  • American Indian

  • Pacific Islander

  • Asian American

You may be able to delay or even prevent type 2 diabetes. You can do this with some lifestyle changes. These may include:

  • Losing excess weight. Losing 5% to 7% of your weight can help if you are overweight.

  • Getting more exercise. Aim for at least 150 minutes a week of activity. Don't let more than 2 days go by without being active. Experts advise all adults to spend less time sitting and being inactive. This is even more important if you have type 2 diabetes. Get up for some light activity every 30 minutes if you do sit for a long time.

Ask your healthcare provider to refer you to a lifestyle intervention program. This will help you get to and stay at a 7% weight loss. It will help you increase your physical activity.

How does diabetes affect blood sugar?

Your pancreas makes insulin. Insulin is needed for glucose to move into the body's cells for energy.

When you have diabetes, your pancreas makes little or no insulin. Or your body's cells don’t respond to the insulin that’s made. This causes sugar to build up in the blood. But your body's cells need sugar. Without it, they don't have enough fuel to work as they should.

The 3 main types of diabetes all lead to a buildup of blood sugar. Each type causes problems with insulin. But each type has a different cause and treatment.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. This means it's caused by the body's immune system. It destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Then your body makes little or no insulin. People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day to live. About 1 in 20 people with diabetes have type 1. People are more at risk if they have a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes.

Most people are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when they are a child, teen, or young adult. But you may be diagnosed at any age. Caucasian Americans are at higher risk for type 1 diabetes. There is no way to prevent type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes happens when the body can't make enough insulin. Or the body can't use it normally. You may be able to control type 2 with diet, exercise, and weight loss. You can control it by taking medicine by mouth. Or you may need insulin injections or other medicine. Most people with diabetes have type 2.

Things that put you at risk for type 2 diabetes include:

  • Prediabetes

  • Excess weight

  • Family history of type 2 diabetes

  • Being age 35 or older

  • History of gestational diabetes

  • Not being physically active

You may be at higher risk if you are:

  • African American

  • Hispanic American

  • American Indian

  • Alaska Native

  • Pacific Islander

  • Asian American

You can delay or prevent type 2 diabetes with:

  • Physical activity

  • Weight loss

  • Healthy eating

Gestational diabetes

This type only happens in pregnancy. It affects pregnant people who did not have diabetes before. They can't use the insulin their body makes. This type of diabetes often goes away after the baby is born. If not, it likely was not gestational diabetes. It was more likely type 1 or type 2 diabetes that began in pregnancy. 

Gestational diabetes may be controlled with diet and exercise, and by watching weight gain. You may need to take medicines to control your blood sugar. You may be at higher risk for type 2 later in life.

Things that raise your risk for gestational diabetes include:

  • History of gestational diabetes

  • Being age 25 or older

  • Excess weight

  • Giving birth in the past to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds

  • Family history of diabetes

  • PCOS

You may be at higher risk if you are:

  • African American

  • Hispanic American

  • American Indian

  • Alaska Native

  • Native Hawaiian

  • Pacific Islander

You may be able to prevent gestational diabetes by:

  • Losing excess weight

  • Eating a healthy diet

  • Exercising

Complications of diabetes

Except for gestational diabetes, diabetes is an ongoing (chronic) disease. This means that it can't be cured. It affects nearly every part of the body. It may lead to other serious diseases. And it can be life-threatening. You must work with a healthcare provider to manage your diabetes. With good blood sugar control, you may prevent the serious complications of the disease. Or you can stop them from getting worse.

Complications of diabetes can include:

  • Eye problems and blindness

  • Heart disease

  • Stroke

  • Nervous system problems

  • Loss of a limb

  • Kidney disease

  • Impotence

How daily issues affect your health

Many things in your daily life impact your health. This can include transportation, money problems, housing, access to food, and child care. If you can’t get to medical appointments, you may not receive the care you need. When money is tight, it may be difficult to pay for medicines. And living far from a grocery store can make it hard to buy healthy food.

If you have concerns in any of these or other areas, talk with your healthcare team. They may know of local resources to assist you. Or they may have a staff person who can help.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Robert Hurd MD
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2022
© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.