It is estimated that a staggering 37.3 million people living in the United States have diabetes. This works out to about 1 in 10—and about 1 in 5 people with diabetes don’t even know they have it.¹ Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90% of the Americans living with diabetes.² Although it can affect people of all ages, it most commonly occurs in people over the age of 45 and is often referred to as “adult-onset diabetes.” While both type 1 and type 2 diabetes affect how the body produces and uses insulin, type 1 diabetes is a genetic condition, whereas type 2 is heavily influenced by weight, diet, activity level, and other lifestyle factors and develops over time. When you understand the causes and risk factors of type 2 diabetes, you can make lifestyle changes to help prevent it, delay it, or lessen its harmful effects.
Causes & Risk Factors
To understand the cause of type 2 diabetes, one must first understand what insulin is and how it works. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that regulates the amount of glucose in the blood. Glucose regulation is necessary to turn sugar from carbohydrates into energy for future use. Type 2 diabetes develops when the body develops insulin resistance—the improper cell response to insulin. When the body is overloaded with sugar in the bloodstream, the pancreas increases the production of insulin to accommodate the influx. Over time, cells stop responding to this amount of insulin—they’ve become insulin resistant. The pancreas keeps producing more insulin to get the cells to respond but is unable to keep up. In turn, blood sugar levels keep rising, which can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease.³
While type 2 diabetes most often occurs in adults over 45, there have been more cases of children, teens, and young adults developing type 2 diabetes in recent years. Being overweight or obese, not engaging in physical activity, and a family history of type 2 diabetes are the biggest risk factors after age.
Other factors that may increase your risk of type 2 diabetes include:
Race & Ethnicity: Although it is unclear why, people who are Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, and Pacific Islanders are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than white people.⁴
Blood Lipid Levels: Having low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), “good” cholesterol, and high levels of triglycerides, “bad” cholesterol, is common in those with type 2 diabetes.⁴
Prediabetes: Prediabetes means that blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not yet high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes. Approximately 96 million American adults are prediabetic, and more than 80% don’t know they have it.⁵
Pregnancy-Related Risks: Women may develop gestational diabetes while pregnant and are at increased risk if they are giving birth to a baby weighing more than nine pounds.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Women with PCOS are often insulin resistant and can develop serious health problems, especially if they are overweight.⁶
Many times, the symptoms of type 2 diabetes develop slowly over several years and can go unnoticed, especially when there are not any obvious symptoms. However, you can be on the lookout for signs that may indicate you are living with type 2 diabetes:
Unintended weight loss
Numbness or tingling of hands or feet
Areas of darkened, velvety skin in the armpits, neck, or groin³
Since many of these symptoms are common with other health issues or may be hard to distinguish, many people live for years with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes and do not realize it. Knowing the risk factors and monitoring and health changes can help you identify symptoms before the condition worsens.
If you notice any of these symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor about your concerns and next steps.
Health lifestyle choices can help prevent or delay type 2 diabetes, even if you are prediabetic. Some tips for living a healthy lifestyle include:
Lowering calorie intake: If you are overweight or obese, lowering your overall calorie intake can help you reach your desired weight.
Increase physical activity: This can be a walking around the block, going to the gym, or riding a bike. Being active makes your body more sensitive to insulin and helps maintain a healthy weight.
Eat a nutritious diet: Try to eat a balanced diet with high fiber, fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol and high-sugar foods: These foods provide empty calories with no nutritional benefit.⁷
For additional information on how to modify your lifestyle to prevent or delay type 2 diabetes, talk to a doctor, pharmacist, or dietician. A healthcare professional can help you set realistic goals and equip you with the tools to exercise, lose weight, and change your diet in a healthy and sustainable way.
If you have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, it is important to manage your condition properly. With proper management, individuals can live long, healthy, fulfilling lives.
Requirements for managing diabetes include:
Developing a healthy diet and activity plan
Managing your stress levels
Testing your blood sugar and keeping records of results
Recognizing the signs of high or low blood sugar
Administering insulin injections
Monitoring the health of your feet, skin, and eyes regularly
Restocking diabetic supplies from your local pharmacy²
Remember that your health care team is there to help you with any questions you have regarding your condition and can help start you on the right path towards living a healthier life. This team may include your primary care doctor, a foot specialist, dentist, eye doctor, dietitian, diabetes educator, and pharmacist. If you have any questions regarding type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, reach out to your local pharmacy or primary care doctor for additional resources.
There are also many online communities that provide resources for insights, tips, and support. And don’t forget that your family and friends are there for you for love and encouragement! You are not alone in your health journey and, by being proactive and understanding the causes, risk factors, and symptoms of type 2 diabetes, you can make lifestyle changes to achieve the best possible outcome.