Skip to Content
Skip to Navigation

Diabetes

diabetes finger testAlmost everyone knows someone who has diabetes. An estimated 26 million people in the United States—8 percent of the population—have diabetes, a serious, lifelong condition. Of those, about 19 million have been diagnosed, and 7 million have not yet been diagnosed. In 2010, about 1.9 million people aged 20 or older were diagnosed with diabetes.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disorder of metabolism—the way our bodies use digested food for growth and energy. Most of the food we eat is broken down into glucose, the form of sugar in the blood. Glucose is the main source of fuel for the body.

After digestion, glucose passes into the bloodstream, where it is used by cells for growth and energy. For glucose to get into cells, insulin must be present. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, a large gland behind the stomach.

When we eat, the pancreas automatically produces the right amount of insulin to move glucose from blood into our cells. In people with diabetes, however, the pancreas either produces little or no insulin, or the cells do not respond appropriately to the insulin that is produced. Glucose builds up in the blood, overflows into the urine, and passes out of the body in the urine. Thus, the body loses its main source of fuel even though the blood contains large amounts of glucose.

What are the types of diabetes?

The three main types of diabetes are

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Gestational diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease results when the body's system for fighting infection (the immune system) turns against a part of the body. In diabetes, the immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The pancreas then produces little or no insulin. A person who has type 1 diabetes must take insulin daily to live.

Scientists do not know exactly what causes the body's immune system to attack the beta cells, but they believe that autoimmune, genetic, and environmental factors, possibly viruses, are involved. Type 1 diabetes accounts for about 5 to 10 percent of diagnosed diabetes in the United States. It develops most often in children and young adults but can appear at any age.

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes usually develop over a short period, although beta cell destruction can begin years earlier. Symptoms may include increased thirst and urination, constant hunger, weight loss, blurred vision, and extreme fatigue. If not diagnosed and treated with insulin, a person with type 1 diabetes can lapse into a life-threatening diabetic coma, also known as diabetic ketoacidosis.

Type 2 diabetes

The most common form of diabetes is known as type 2 diabetes. About 90 to 95 percent of people with diabetes have this form of diabetes, which is most often associated with older age, obesity, family history of diabetes, previous history of gestational diabetes, physical inactivity, and certain ethnicities. About 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight. Type 2 diabetes is increasingly being diagnosed in children and adolescents.

When type 2 diabetes is diagnosed, the pancreas is usually producing enough insulin, but for unknown reasons the body cannot use the insulin effectively, a condition called insulin resistance. After several years, insulin production decreases. The result is the same as for type 1 diabetes—glucose builds up in the blood and the body cannot make efficient use of its main source of fuel.

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes develop gradually. Their onset is not as sudden as in type 1 diabetes. Symptoms may include fatigue, frequent urination, increased thirst and hunger, weight loss, blurred vision, and slow healing of wounds or sores. Some people have no symptoms.

Gestational diabetes

Some women develop gestational diabetes late in pregnancy. Although this form of diabetes usually disappears after the birth of the baby, women who have had gestational diabetes have a 20 to 50 percent chance of developing type 2 diabetes within 5 to 10 years. Maintaining a reasonable body weight and being physically active may help prevent development of type 2 diabetes.

About 3 to 8 percent of pregnant women in the United States develop gestational diabetes. As with type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes occurs more often in some ethnic groups and among women with a family history of diabetes. Gestational diabetes is caused by the hormones of pregnancy or a shortage of insulin. Women with gestational diabetes may not experience any symptoms.

How is diabetes diagnosed?

The fasting blood glucose test is the preferred test for diagnosing diabetes in children and non-pregnant adults. It is most reliable when done in the morning. However, a diagnosis of diabetes can be made based on any of the following test results, confirmed by re-testing on a different day:

  • A blood glucose level of 126 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or more after an 8-hour fast. This test is called the fasting blood glucose test.
  • A blood glucose level of 200 mg/dL or more 2 hours after drinking a beverage containing 75 grams of glucose dissolved in water. This test is called the oral glucose tolerance test.
  • A random (taken at any time of day) blood glucose level of 200 mg/dL or more, along with the presence of diabetes symptoms.

Gestational diabetes is diagnosed based on blood glucose levels measured during the oral glucose tolerance test. Glucose levels are normally lower during pregnancy, so the cutoff levels for diagnosis of diabetes in pregnancy are lower. Blood glucose levels are measured before a woman drinks a beverage containing glucose. Then levels are checked 1, 2, and 3 hours afterward. If a woman has two blood glucose levels meeting or exceeding any of the following numbers, she has gestational diabetes: a fasting blood glucose level of 95 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), a 1-hour level of 180 mg/dL, a 2-hour level of 155 mg/dL, or a 3-hour level of 140 mg/dL.

What is pre-diabetes?

People with pre-diabetes have blood glucose levels that are higher than normal but not high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes. This condition raises the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Pre-diabetes is also called impaired fasting glucose (IFG) or impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), depending on the test used to diagnose it. Some people have both of these conditions.

  • Impaired fasting glucose is a condition in which the blood glucose level is high (100 to 125 milligrams per deciliter) after an overnight fast, but is not high enough to be classified as diabetes.
  • Impaired glucose tolerance is a condition in which the blood glucose level is high (140 to 199 mg/dL) after a 2-hour oral glucose tolerance test, but is not high enough to be classified as diabetes.

Pre-diabetes is becoming more common in the United States. About 35 percent of U.S. adults older than 20—or 79 million people—had pre-diabetes in 2010. Many people with pre-diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes within 10 years.

The good news is that if you have pre-diabetes, you can do a lot to prevent or delay diabetes. Studies have clearly shown that you can lower your risk of developing diabetes by losing 5 to 7 percent of your body weight through diet and increased physical activity. One study of people with pre-diabetes found that diet and exercise resulting in a 5 to 7 percent weight loss—about 10 to 14 pounds in a person who weighs 200 pounds—lowered the rate of type 2 diabetes by nearly 60 percent. Study participants lost weight by cutting fat and calories in their diet and by exercising (most chose walking) at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.

What are the health consequences of diabetes?

Diabetes is widely recognized as one of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States. In 2007, it was the seventh leading cause of death. However, about 65 percent of deaths among those with diabetes are attributed to heart disease and stroke.

Diabetes is associated with long-term complications that affect almost every part of the body. The disease often leads to blindness, heart and blood vessel disease, stroke, kidney failure, amputations, and nerve damage. Uncontrolled diabetes can complicate pregnancy, and birth defects are more common in babies born to women with diabetes.

In 2007, diabetes cost the United States $174 billion. Indirect costs, including disability payments, time lost from work, and premature death, totaled $58 billion; direct medical costs for diabetes care, including hospitalizations, medical care, and treatment supplies, totaled $116 billion.

Who gets diabetes?

Diabetes is not contagious. People cannot "catch" it from each other. However, certain factors can increase the risk of developing diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes occurs equally among males and females but is more common in whites than in people of color. Data indicate that type 1 diabetes is rare in most African, American Indian, and Asian ethnic groups. However, some northern European countries, including Finland and Sweden, have high rates of type 1 diabetes. The reasons for these differences are unknown. Type 1 diabetes develops most often in children but can occur at any age.

Type 2 diabetes is more common in older people, especially in people who are overweight, and occurs more often in African Americans, American Indians, some Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islander Americans, and Hispanics/Latinos.

Diabetes prevalence in the United States is likely to increase for several reasons. First, a large segment of the population is aging (27% of people over the age of 65 had diabetes in 2010). Also, Hispanics/Latinos and other minority groups at increased risk make up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. Finally, Americans are increasingly overweight and sedentary. According to recent estimates, diabetes will affect one in three people by 2050.

How is diabetes managed?

Before the discovery of insulin in 1921, everyone with type 1 diabetes died within a few years after diagnosis. Although insulin is not considered a cure, its discovery was the first major breakthrough in diabetes treatment.

Today, healthy eating, physical activity, and taking insulin are the basic therapies for type 1 diabetes. The amount of insulin must be balanced with food intake and daily activities. Blood glucose levels must be closely monitored through frequent blood glucose checking. People with diabetes also monitor blood glucose levels several times a year with a special laboratory test.

Healthy eating, physical activity, and blood glucose testing are the basic management tools for type 2 diabetes. In addition, many people with type 2 diabetes require oral medication, insulin, or both to control their blood glucose levels.

Adults with diabetes are at high risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Managing diabetes is more than keeping blood glucose levels under control—it is also important to manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels through healthy eating, physical activity, and use of medications (if needed). By doing so, those with diabetes can lower their risk. Aspirin therapy, if recommended by the health care team, and smoking cessation can also help lower risk.

People with diabetes must take responsibility for their day-to-day care. Much of the daily care involves keeping blood glucose levels from going too low or too high. When blood glucose levels drop too low—a condition known as hypoglycemia—a person can become nervous, shaky, and confused. Judgment can be impaired, and if blood glucose falls too low, fainting can occur.

A person can also become ill if blood glucose levels rise too high, a condition known as hyperglycemia.

People with diabetes should see a health care provider who will help them learn to manage their diabetes and who will monitor their diabetes control. Most people with diabetes get care from primary care physicians—internists, family practice doctors, or pediatricians and/or obstetricians among women with gestational diabetes. Often, having a team of providers can improve diabetes care.

The goal of diabetes management is to keep levels of blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol as close to the normal range as safely possible. A major study showed that keeping blood glucose levels close to normal reduces the risk of developing major complications of type 1 diabetes.

Hope through research

In recent years, advances in diabetes research have led to better ways of managing diabetes and treating its complications. Major advances include:

  • Development of quick-acting, long-acting, and inhaled insulins
  • Better ways to monitor blood glucose and for people with diabetes to check their own blood glucose levels
  • Development of external insulin pumps that deliver insulin, replacing daily injections
  • Laser treatment for diabetic eye disease, reducing the risk of blindness
  • Successful kidney and pancreas transplantation in people whose kidneys fail because of diabetes
  • Better ways of managing diabetes in pregnant women, improving their chances of a successful outcome
  • New drugs to treat type 1 and type 2 diabetes and better ways to manage this form of diabetes through weight control
  • Evidence that intensive management of blood glucose reduces and may prevent development of diabetes complications
  • Demonstration that two types of antihypertensive drugs are more effective than other antihypertensive drugs in reducing a decline in kidney function in people with diabetes
  • Advances in transplantation of islets (clusters of cells that produce insulin and other hormones) for type 1 diabetes
  • Evidence that people at high risk for type 2 diabetes can lower their chances of developing the disease through diet, weight loss, and physical activity

Researchers continue to look for the cause or causes of diabetes and ways to manage, prevent, or cure the disorder. Scientists are searching for genes that may be involved in type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Some genetic markers for type 1 diabetes have been identified, and it is now possible to screen relatives of people with type 1 diabetes to determine whether they are at risk.

Additional resources

Schedule an appointment at Hall Health Center

If you are a current UW-Seattle or established Hall Health Center patient with questions, you may contact our Consulting Nurse service.

The American Diabetes Association offers over-the-phone answers to questions about diabetes at 1-800-DIABETES

1-800-342-2383
1-800-342-2383

 

Authored by: Hall Health Center Primary Care Clinic staff, reprinted from the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse

Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Primary Care Clinic staff (DD), February 2014