Diabetes can have serious and life-threatening complications. Here’s what you need to know to lower your risk and get ahead of any symptoms.
Diabetes has become a growing concern around the world. In the U.S., about 34 million adults have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The prevalence goes up with age; nearly 27% of adults aged 65 or older have the disease.
Millions more probably don’t even know that they have it, the CDC estimates. Diabetes also raises the risk of other serious health problems if it is not managed properly.
Like many other health issues, the risk of developing diabetes increases as you get older. But there are strategies that can help prevent it. There are also ways to help manage the symptoms of the disease if you have been diagnosed with it (or its precursor, prediabetes).
Read on for answers to some of the questions doctors get asked most often about diabetes.
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What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic and life-threatening condition that affects how your body uses food for energy. Most of the food you eat breaks down into a type of sugar called glucose. Glucose flows into your bloodstream, which is why it’s also known as blood sugar. From there, it enters your cells to fuel your body.
In people who don’t have diabetes, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin when glucose levels increase. Insulin is like a key that unlocks blood sugar, so it can fuel your cells and help your body work properly.
If you have diabetes, your body might not make enough insulin. That’s called type 1 diabetes. When your body doesn’t use insulin as effectively as it should, it’s type 2 diabetes.
Let’s take a closer look at the differences between those two types:
- Type 1 diabetes is when too much glucose stays in your blood stream. About 10% of people with diabetes have this type. It was once called insulin-dependent or juvenile diabetes. It often develops in children and young adults, but it can happen at any stage of life.
- Type 2 diabetes is when your body makes enough insulin, but your body doesn’t use it the right way. This means that blood sugar levels don’t stay at normal levels. Most people with diabetes have this type. It can slowly develop over the years and often has no symptoms.
There’s also another type of diabetes known as gestational diabetes. This is a condition that can develop during pregnancy and must be closely watched. Every year, up to 10% of pregnancies in the U.S. are affected by gestational diabetes. Blood sugar levels usually return to normal after delivery.
What are the symptoms of diabetes?
Diabetic symptoms may take years to develop. Here are some common signs:
- Increased urination, especially at night
- Weight loss
- Increased thirst and hunger
- Blurry vision
- Extreme fatigue
- Very dry skin
- Sores heal more slowly than usual
- Numb or tingling hands or feet
- More infections or illness than usual
With type 1 diabetes, there may be additional symptoms like nausea, vomiting or stomach pains. If you experience any of these symptoms, make an appointment to talk to a doctor.
What are the risk factors for diabetes?
Because the symptoms may not show up right away, it’s important to know if you are at increased risk for the disease:
- A family history of diabetes
- Excess weight
- Being 45 years old or older
- Not enough physical activity
- A history of gestational diabetes or giving birth to a baby over 9 pounds
- You are African American, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native
If you have one or more of these risk factors, you should talk to your doctor. This is especially true if you are also experiencing any symptoms.
I’ve also heard about prediabetes? What is that?
Prediabetes means that your blood sugar levels are higher than they should be, but they are not high enough to be classified as type 2 diabetes. It can be reversed if it is detected early enough.
About one in three people have prediabetes. Without medical treatment, they are likely to develop type 2 diabetes within 10 years of first being diagnosed. With lifestyle changes, you can help get your blood sugar levels back to normal.
Recommended reading: Your Doc Says You Have Prediabetes. Now What?
What lifestyle changes can lower my risk for prediabetes and diabetes?
There are many things you can do to keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy place. Consider these shifts to lower your risk:
- Move more. Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity, five days a week. If you’re not already an active person, talk to a health professional to discuss which types of exercise would be best for you.
- Eat healthy foods. High-fiber whole grains like brown rice and whole-wheat bread keep blood sugar more stable. That’s because they take longer to digest. Fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats like olive oil and nuts are also good for you. Sugary treats and ultra-processed foods are not and should be limited.
- Get quality sleep. Being well-rested can have a major impact on how your body handles glucose. Plus, good sleep is also good for every other aspect of your health. So are exercise and eating right.
Recommended FREE SilverSneakers On-Demand Class: Beginner Strength Training Exercises for Seniors
How does exercise affect prediabetes and diabetes?
Getting regular movement is a major part of managing diabetes. It also can prevent it. Physical activity helps your body in these ways:
- Lowers blood sugar during a workout and up to a day after
- Helps your body process glucose better
- Increases insulin sensitivity
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves metabolism
- Aids weight loss
- Increases HDL “good” cholesterol
- Boosts your mood
- Builds muscle strength
- Improves endurance and oxygen usage
The more you move, the bigger the benefits. That means it’s helpful to be more active throughout the day. Structured classes like those offered by SilverSneakers can make a big difference. But you can also be more active by taking regular walks and standing more often.
When you combine movement with other lifestyle changes like healthy eating and better sleep, it can be a powerful way to get diabetes management on track.
Recommended reading: 6 Tips for Exercising With Diabetes
How is diabetes treated?
Treatments depend on what type of diabetes you have. Have a conversation with your health provider about a treatment plan that will be designed for you. Here’s what you can usually expect:
Glucose monitoring. This is done with a device called a glucose monitor. Your doctor will determine how often you should check it. It can vary from a few times a week to several times a day. Some people prefer to use a continuous glucose monitor. This attaches to the body and checks your blood sugar throughout the day. It will send an alert if your level goes too high.
A1C Testing. This is a blood test done in a doctor’s office or lab. It measures your blood sugar levels over a three-month period. It’s useful for adjusting medications if needed, especially if you are experiencing symptoms.
Insulin. People with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin because their bodies don’t make enough on their own. This is delivered either with injections or an insulin pump. Both devices can be used at home. If you have type 2 diabetes, you may also need to take insulin.
Medications. The most common drug for type 2 diabetes is metformin. It makes your body more sensitive to insulin. That helps lower the amount of sugar in your blood.
Recommended reading: What’s the Difference Between Blood Sugar vs. A1C?
Can you have other chronic conditions along with diabetes?
Yes. Diabetes can lead to other serious health issues. Many people with type 2 diabetes are at risk for more than one of them at a time. The most common are:
- High cholesterol
- Chronic kidney disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Anxiety and depression
Managing diabetic symptoms lowers your chances of developing these other problems. The better you manage your condition, the healthier you’ll feel.
See our sources:
Diabetes prevalence: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Type 1 diabetes: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Type 2 diabetes: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Diabetes risk factors and symptoms: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Testing and diagnosis: National institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Prediabetes risk factors: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Prediabetes nutrition: Cleveland Clinic
Diabetes-related health conditions: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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