What is diabetes?
Once you recovered from the shock of learning that a loved one has diabetes, you probably wanted to learn more about what diabetes is. In the simplest terms, diabetes is a breakdown in the body’s sugar-processing systems.
A sugar called glucose is the basic fuel for the human body. All the food we eat is converted to glucose to keep our minds sharp, our hearts beating, and our lungs breathing. It is glucose that lets us live, love, and laugh.
But too much glucose is poison. Excessive sugar in the blood can lead to heart attacks, strokes, heart disease, blindness and amputations—all terrifying outcomes. The good news is that all these horrible complications are not caused by diabetes itself, but by the high blood sugar that results from unmanaged diabetes. Controlling diabetes is simply a matter of controlling blood sugar. When blood sugar is controlled, a long, healthy, happy life is possible.
What causes diabetes? There are three types of diabetes (type 2, type 1 and gestational diabetes), and the cause depends on the type.
What is Type 2 Diabetes?
If your loved one has type 2, either their body ignores the sugar-processing hormone called insulin it produces or their body doesn’t produce enough insulin (and sometimes both). Type 2 diabetes is the most common kind of diabetes, accounting for 90% to 95% of people who have diabetes.
Who gets Type 2 Diabetes?
Anyone can get type 2 diabetes, and it can develop at any age, although it is more likely to occur as people get older. Being overweight increases the risk but being overweight does not cause diabetes (nor does eating too much sugar). Diabetes is a complex disease that combines genetic and environmental factors so it is important that you understand that diabetes is no one’s “fault.” Type 2 is more common in people who have had pre-diabetes, who smoke, who have family members with type 2 diabetes, or are over 45. Women who have had gestational diabetes are also at higher risk. If you want to check your own risk, click here to take a risk test.
What is Type 1 Diabetes?
In Type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin– people with type 1 need to take insulin every day to live. Type 1 typically develops in children and young adults, although there are cases of it happening later in life as well. People with type 1 diabetes account for about 5% of all cases of diabetes.
The resources on this site are predominantly geared towards folks with type 2. If your loved one has been diagnosed with type 1 and you would like to learn more, here’s a list of sites that will be helpful:
For adults with type 1:
For parents of kids with type 1:
What is gestational diabetes?
During pregnancy, some women—usually around their 24th week— develop gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes can be caused by the hormones or pregnancy, or a shortage of insulin, and sometimes both. Gestational diabetes doesn’t mean that your loved one will have diabetes after she gives birth (although it does increase her risk), but it’s very important she follows her doctor’s advice while she’s pregnant so she and her baby remain healthy. All women should be checked for gestational diabetes in their 24th to 28th week of pregnancy—if your loved one is pregnant, talk to her doctor to make sure she’s been screened.
Here are a few places where you can learn more about gestational diabetes:
Wait a minute, what is pre-diabetes?
You might have heard people talking about pre-diabetes, what’s that? Pre-diabetes is a condition where blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be classified as diabetes. It sounds harmless but it is not. Pre-diabetes often turns into diabetes, and pre-diabetes itself can be dangerous, increasing heart disease and stroke risk by 50%.
While that sounds grim, there is good news—making lifestyle changes (like exercising daily, losing weight and eating balanced meals) can help many people with pre-diabetes delay or even prevent developing diabetes. For information about the changes anyone can make to reduce their risk for diabetes, heart attack and stroke, click here.