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Diabetes Causes and Methods of Prevention

Jessica Evert, MD, edited by Benjamin McDonald, MD

senior woman drivingDiabetes causal factors are different for each type of diabetes. Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disease whose exact causes are simply not well understood at this time. Factors associated with risk for Type 1 diabetes may include genetically inherited vulnerability and exposure to one or more environmental factors, possibly including viral exposure. At this time there appears to be little or nothing that people can do to avoid risk of getting Type 1 diabetes.

In contrast to the uncertainty surrounding Type 1 diabetes, there are clear risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes:

Advancing Age. All people are at increased risk for developing Type 2 diabetes as they age. While type Type 2 diabetes can occur in people of any age, it is much more common in people aged 40 or older.  Although recent evidence suggests that more and more children are falling victim to type 2 diabetes.  The American Diabetic Association reports that roughly one in six overweight children falls into the pre-diabetic category.  Many of these pre-diabetic children go on to develop full blown type 2 diabetes (CDC, 2008).

Race and Ethnicity. Type 2 diabetes occurs more commonly among certain ethnic groups than others. African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Pacific Islander, and Asian American are at greater risk for developing the illness than are Caucasians.

Family History of Diabetes. People who have close blood relatives (siblings or parents) who have diabetes are at increased risk of getting diabetes themselves compared to people who do not have a blood relative with the disease.

Personal History of Gestational Diabetes or High Birth Weight Baby. Mothers who experienced temporary Gestational diabetes during pregnancy, or who gave birth to a high birth weight baby (9 lbs or larger) are at increased risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.

Pre-diabetes. Pre-diabetes, otherwise known as “impaired glucose tolerance”, is a pre-cursor to Type 2 diabetes. A pre-diabetic person's blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not yet as high as is necessary for a diagnosis of diabetes. As the name suggests, pre-diabetes is considered to be a station along the way towards full blown Type 2 diabetes. Without intervention, many pre-diabetic people go on to develop Type 2 diabetes within a decade. Many people who develop pre-diabetes are overweight, have poor diets and live sedentary (inactive) lifestyles. Pre-diabetes can often be reversed with proper self-care including regular exercise and a healthy diet.

Sedentary Lifestyle. People who lead sedentary, inactive lives (e.g., who work at a desk job and then watch a lot of TV) have a greater risk of developing diabetes than more active people (e.g., who have built regular exercise into their daily routines). Even modest exercise, (30 minutes a day, three days a week) has been shown to significantly decrease Type 2 diabetes risks. Adopting and sticking to a regular exercise program can often help to reduce Type 2 diabetes symptoms.

Diet and Obesity. The majority of people diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes are overweight adults. Research has demonstrated that modest sustained weight loss (of even 10 lbs), portion control, and lower-fat and refined sugar dietary choices reduce Type 2 diabetes risk. A lower-fat diet, proportionally balanced among the food groups, and featuring more natural foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables is best for this purpose. In combination with regular modest exercise, the health-promoting effects are even larger.

History of Cardiovascular Disease. High blood cholesterol and hypertension (high blood pressure) are also risk factors for Type 2 diabetes. Luckily, both of these conditions can usually be prevented by eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. Medicines are also available for people with hypertension or high blood cholesterol who can not control the conditions with diet and exercise alone.

The more of these risk factors you have in your life, the greater your chances for getting Type 2 diabetes. The best way to prevent Type 2 diabetes is to eliminate as many of the controllable risk factors for the illness as possible from your life.