Facts About Diabetes

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder characterized by a failure to secrete enough insulin or to secrete enough insulin to compensate for the degree of insulin resistance. Because insulin is needed by the body to convert glucose into energy, these failures result in abnormally high levels of glucose accumulating in the blood. Diabetes may also be a result of other conditions, such as genetic syndromes, chemicals, drugs, pancreatitis, infections, viruses, or other illnesses.

The 3 main types of diabetes type 1, type 2, and gestational are all defined as metabolic disorders that affect the way the body metabolizes, or uses, digested food to make glucose, the main source of fuel for the body.

What is prediabetes?

Type 2 diabetes is commonly preceded by prediabetes. In prediabetes, blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be defined as diabetes. However, many people with prediabetes develop type 2 diabetes within 10 years, states the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Prediabetes also increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. With modest (5% to 10%) weight loss and moderate physical activity for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, people with prediabetes can delay or prevent type 2 diabetes.

According to the CDC, prediabetes affects 79 million people in the U.S.

How does diabetes affect blood glucose?

For glucose to be able to move into the cells of the body, the hormone insulin must be present. Insulin is produced primarily in the pancreas, and, normally, is readily available to help move glucose into the cells.

However, in people with diabetes, either the pancreas produces too little or no insulin, or it does not secrete enough insulin to compensate for the degree of insulin resistance (the cells do not respond to the insulin that is produced). This causes a buildup of glucose in the blood, while the cells are starving for glucose and fall short of their main source of fuel without insulin. 

Although the 3 main types of diabetes are similar in the buildup of blood glucose due to problems with insulin, there are differences in cause and treatment:

  • Type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, resulting in no or a low amount of insulin. People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin daily in order to live.

  • Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is a result of the body's inability to make enough, or to properly use, insulin. Type 2 diabetes may be controlled with diet, exercise, and weight loss, or may require oral medications and/or insulin injections.

  • Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM). Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) occurs in pregnant women who have not been diagnosed with diabetes in the past. It results in the inability to use the insulin that is present effectively and it disappears after delivery. If it does not disappear, it was not gestational diabetes but type 1 or 2 diabetes with onset during pregnancy. GDM may be controlled with diet, exercise, and attention to weight gain. Women with GDM may require medicines to control their glucose. Women with GDM may be at higher risk for type 2 diabetes later in life.

Complications of diabetes

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death among Americans. Although it is believed that diabetes is underreported as a condition leading to or causing death, each year, more than 200,000 deaths are reported as being caused by diabetes or its complications. Complications of diabetes include eye problems and blindness, heart disease, stroke, neurological problems, amputation, and impotence.

Because diabetes (with the exception of GDM) is a chronic, incurable disease that affects nearly every part of the body, contributes to other serious diseases, and can be life-threatening, it must be managed under the care of a doctor throughout a person's life. With appropriate care, the serious complications of diabetes can be prevented altogether or from progressing.