Topic updated: October 2012

Diabetes

Diabetes is a disorder of metabolism - the way the body uses 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 people eat, the pancreas automatically produces the right amount of insulin to move glucose from blood into the 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.

At present, 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 type 2 diabetes. About 90 to 95 percent of people with diabetes have type 2. This form of diabetes 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, especially among African American, Mexican American, and Pacific Islander youth.

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 40 to 60 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 nonpregnant 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 retesting 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 (OGTT).
  • 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 OGTT. 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 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 IFG and IGT.

  • IFG is a condition in which the blood glucose level is high - 100 to 125 mg/dL - after an overnight fast, but is not high enough to be classified as diabetes. The former definition of IFG was 110 mg/dL to 125 mg/dL.
  • IGT is a condition in which the blood glucose level is high - 140 to 199 mg/dL - after a 2-hour OGTT, but is not high enough to be classified as diabetes.

Pre-diabetes is becoming more common in the United States. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that at least 57 million U.S. adults ages 20 or older had pre-diabetes in 2007. Those with pre-diabetes are likely to develop type 2 diabetes within 10 years, unless they take steps to prevent or delay diabetes.

The good news is that people with pre-diabetes can do a lot to prevent or delay diabetes. Studies have clearly shown that people can lower their risk of developing diabetes by losing 5 to 7 percent of their body weight through diet and increased physical activity. A major study of more than 3,000 people with IGT 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 incidence 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 scope and impact of diabetes?

Diabetes is widely recognized as one of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States. In 2006, it was the seventh leading cause of death. However, diabetes is likely to be underreported as the underlying cause of death on death certificates. In 2004, among people ages 65 years or older, heart disease was noted on 68 percent of diabetes-related death certificates; stroke was noted on 16 percent of diabetes-related death certificates for the same age group.

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 reduced productivity, 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 nonwhites. Data from the World Health Organization’s Multinational Project for Childhood Diabetes indicate that type 1 diabetes is rare in most African, American Indian, and Asian populations. 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. National survey data in 2007 indicate a range in the prevalence of diagnosed and undiagnosed diabetes in various populations ages 20 years or older:

  • Age 20 years or older: 23.5 million, or 10.7 percent, of all people in this age group have diabetes.
  • Age 60 years or older: 12.2 million, or 23.1 percent, of all people in this age group have diabetes.
  • Men: 12.0 million, or 11.2 percent, of all men ages 20 years or older have diabetes.
  • Women: 11.5 million, or 10.2 percent, of all women ages 20 years or older have diabetes.
  • Non-Hispanic whites: 14.9 million, or 9.8 percent, of all non-Hispanic whites ages 20 years or older have diabetes.
  • Non-Hispanic blacks: 3.7 million, or 14.7 percent, of all non-Hispanic blacks ages 20 years or older have diabetes.

Diabetes prevalence in the United States is likely to increase for several reasons. First, a large segment of the population is aging. 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 from the CDC, diabetes will affect one in three people born in 2000 in the United States. The CDC also projects that the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes in the United States will increase 165 percent 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. Doctors may also prescribe another type of injectable medicine. 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 laboratory test called the A1C. Results of the A1C test reflect average blood glucose over a 2- to 3-month period.

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 one or more diabetes medicines - pills, insulin, and other injectable medicine - to control their blood glucose levels.

Adults with diabetes are at high risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). In fact, at least 65 percent of those with diabetes die from heart disease or stroke. 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 the use of medications, if needed. By doing so, those with diabetes can lower their risk. Aspirin therapy, if recommended by a person’s 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.

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. Often, having a team of providers can improve diabetes care. A team can include

  • a primary care provider such as an internist, a family practice doctor, or a pediatrician
  • an endocrinologist - a specialist in diabetes care
  • a dietitian, a nurse, and other health care providers who are certified diabetes educators - experts in providing information about managing diabetes
  • a podiatrist - for foot care
  • an ophthalmologist or an optometrist - for eye care

The team can also include other health care providers, such as cardiologists and other specialists. The team for a pregnant woman with type 1, type 2, or gestational diabetes should include an obstetrician who specializes in caring for women with diabetes. The team can also include a pediatrician or a neonatologist with experience taking care of babies born to women with diabetes.

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, the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT), sponsored by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), showed that keeping blood glucose levels close to normal reduces the risk of developing major complications of type 1 diabetes.

This 10-year study, completed in 1993, included 1,441 people with type 1 diabetes. The study compared the effect of two treatment approaches - intensive management and standard management - on the development and progression of eye, kidney, nerve, and cardiovascular complications of diabetes. Intensive treatment aimed to keep A1C levels as close to normal - 6 percent - as possible. Researchers found that study participants who maintained lower levels of blood glucose through intensive management had significantly lower rates of these complications. More recently, a follow-up study of DCCT participants showed that the ability of intensive control to lower the complications of diabetes has persisted more than 10 years after the trial ended.

The United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study, a European study completed in 1998, showed that intensive control of blood glucose and blood pressure reduced the risk of blindness, kidney disease, stroke, and heart attack in people with type 2 diabetes.

Read the rest of this article from The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC). You might also want to see the related HealthyNJ pages on: Diabetes and Fitness, Diabetes and Nutrition, Diabetes and Pregnancy, Diabetic Eye Problems, Diabetic Foot Problems, Diabetic Kidney Problems, Diabetic Nerve Problems, Diabetic Retinopathy, Insulin Resistance, Metabolic Syndrome and Pre-Diabetes.

Photo of a very fit male giving himself an injection

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