Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Diabetes?
The two types of diabetes, insulin-dependent (type 1) and noninsulin-dependent (type 2), are different disorders. While the causes, short-term effects, and treatments for the two types differ, both can cause the same long-term health problems. Both types also affect the body’s ability to use digested food for energy. Diabetes doesn’t interfere with digestion, but it does prevent the body from using an important product of digestion, glucose (commonly known as sugar), for energy.
After a meal the digestive system breaks some food down into sugar. The blood carries the sugar throughout the body, causing blood sugar levels to rise. In response to this rise the hormone insulin is released into the bloodstream to signal the body tissues to metabolize or burn the sugar for fuel, causing blood sugar levels to return to normal. A gland called the pancreas, found just behind the stomach, makes insulin. Sugar the body doesn’t use right away goes to the liver, muscle, or fat for storage.
In someone with diabetes, this process doesn’t work correctly. In people with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce insulin. This condition usually begins in childhood. People with this kind of diabetes must have daily insulin injections to survive.
In people with type 2 diabetes the pancreas usually produces some insulin, but the body doesn’t respond very well to the insulin signal and, therefore, doesn’t metabolize the sugar properly, a condition called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is an important factor in type 2 diabetes.
Points to Remember
Diabetes interferes with the body’s use of food for energy.
While type 1 and type 2 diabetes are different disorders, they can cause the same complications.
What Are the Symptoms of Diabetes?
The symptoms of diabetes may begin gradually and can be hard to identify at first. They may include fatigue, a sick feeling, frequent urination, especially at night, and excessive thirst. When there is extra sugar in blood, one way the body gets rid of it is through frequent urination. This loss of fluids causes extreme thirst. Other symptoms may include sudden weight loss, blurred vision, and slow healing of skin, gum, and urinary tract infections. Women may notice genital itching.
A doctor also may suspect a patient has diabetes if the person has health problems related to diabetes. For instance, heart disease, changes in vision, numbness in the feet and legs, or sores that are slow to heal, may prompt a doctor to check for diabetes. These symptoms do not mean a person has diabetes, but anyone who has these problems should see a doctor.
Points to Remember
The symptoms of diabetes can develop gradually and may be hard to identify at first.
Symptoms may include feeling tired or ill, excessive thirst, frequent urination, sudden weight loss, blurred vision, slow healing of infections, and genital itching.
What Causes Type 2 Diabetes?
There is no simple answer to what causes type 2 diabetes. While eating sugar, for example, doesn’t cause diabetes, eating large amounts of sugar and other rich, fatty foods, can cause weight gain. Most people who develop diabetes are overweight. Scientists do not fully understand why obesity increases someone’s chances of developing diabetes, but they believe obesity is a major factor leading to type 2 diabetes. Current research should help explain why the disorder occurs and why obesity is such an important risk factor.
A major cause of diabetes is insulin resistance. Scientists are still searching for the causes of insulin resistance, but they have identified two possibilities. The first could be a defect in insulin receptors on cells. Like an appliance that needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet, insulin has to bind to a receptor to function. Several things can go wrong with receptors. There may not be enough receptors for insulin to bind to, or a defect in the receptors may prevent insulin from binding.
A second possible cause involves the process that occurs after insulin plugs into the receptor. Insulin may bind to the receptor, but the cells don’t read the signal to metabolize the sugar. Scientists are studying cells to see why this might happen.
Points to Remember
In people with type 2 diabetes, insulin doesn’t lower blood sugar, a condition called insulin resistance.
Obesity is a risk factor for diabetes.
Who Develops Type 2 Diabetes?
Age, sex, weight, physical activity, diet, lifestyle, and family health history all affect someone’s chances of developing type 2 diabetes. The chances that someone will develop diabetes increase if the person’s parents or siblings have the disease. Experts now know that diabetes is more common in African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians than whites. They believe this is the result of both heredity and environmental factors, such as diet and lifestyle. The highest rate of diabetes in the world is in an Arizona community of American Indians called the Pimas. While the chances of developing diabetes increase with age, gender isn’t a risk factor, although African American women are more likely to develop diabetes than African American men.
While people can’t change family history, age, or race, it is possible to control weight and physical fitness. A doctor can decide if someone is at risk for developing diabetes and offer advice on reducing that risk.