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Understanding diabetes

An estimated 20.8 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, a serious, lifelong condition. Those who have it are unable to use the glucose in their food for energy. Glucose accumulates in the bloodstream, where it can damage the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves.

Types of diabetes

Type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes, develops most often in children and young adults, but it can appear at any age. This form of diabetes is considered an autoimmune disease, since the body’s immune system attacks its own insulin-producing cells and destroys them. Type 1 occurs equally among males and females but is more common in whites than nonwhites.

Symptoms usually develop over a short period. Warning signs include increased thirst and urination, constant hunger, weight loss, blurred vision and extreme fatigue. If not diagnosed and treated with insulin, a person with type 1 diabetes can lapse into a life-threatening coma.

Type 2 diabetes, the most common form, occurs in 90 percent to 95 percent of people with diabetes.

Although type 2 diabetes usually develops in adults 40 years and older, it can appear at any age. Symptoms of type 2 diabetes, formerly called adult-onset or noninsulin-dependent diabetes, may include fatigue or nausea, frequent urination, unusual thirst, weight loss, blurred vision, frequent infections and slow-healing wounds or sores. However, some people have no symptoms.

You are at risk for type 2 diabetes if you are over age 55, overweight, get little or no exercise or have a parent or sibling with diabetes. In addition, it occurs more often in African-Americans, American Indians and Hispanic Americans.

Gestational diabetes occurs in some women during their late stages of pregnancy. The cause may have to do with hormones that help the fetus grow but block the action of the mother’s insulin. If gestational diabetes is not treated or controlled, it can harm the baby.

Though this form of the disease usually goes away after the baby is born, a woman who has had it is more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life. It occurs more often in African-Americans, American Indians and Hispanic Americans.

A special case: Pre-diabetes

People with pre-diabetes have higher-than-normal glucose levels but not high enough to be classified as type 2 diabetes. Almost all people have pre-diabetes before they develop type 2, and they are at increased risk for heart attack and stroke. Unfortunately, pre-diabetes is often symptomless. The American Diabetes Association recommends getting screened for diabetes at your next doctor’s visit if you are 45 years or older and overweight.

Exercise and changes in diet can prevent the progression to type 2 and may even bring glucose levels back to normal.

Take control!

People with pre-diabetes and diabetes must maintain healthy eating habits, stay physically active and monitor blood glucose levels. Those with type 1 diabetes also require insulin via injection or an insulin pump. People with type 2 diabetes may need oral medication or insulin.

Keeping blood glucose levels as close to the normal range as possible is vital: It can reduce or delay the risk of developing other health problems that diabetes can cause, such as heart disease.