Who Gets Diabetes & How It Can Affect You

If you have diabetes, it is important to get the facts about who gets diabetes and how it can affect you. This includes the causes of diabetes and the symptoms you may experience.

The following are some common myths and misconceptions about diabetes.

Myth 1:Type 2 diabetes is not a serious disease

The myth that diabetes is not a serious disease is a particularly dangerous one.

FACT: Type 2 diabetes is a serious health problem with serious consequences. However, you have powerful tools, including lifestyle changes and medications, that you can use to control your diabetes and prevent or delay many of the health complications associated with the disease.

On the dangers of uncontrolled diabetes, the facts speak for themselves. According to national data for the year 2007, diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the US. Diabetes is associated with a long list of serious health complications, including cardiovascular disease, vision problems, kidney disease, and nervous system disease. Recent studies have found that diabetes is 1:

  • Associated with up to 4-fold increased risk for heart disease and stroke
  • The leading cause of blindness
  • The leading cause of kidney failure
  • Associated with high rates of nervous system damage
  • Associated with high rates of amputation due to non-healing wounds

Learn more about the complications of diabetes.

The information above shows that diabetes is indeed a serious disease. However, the good news is that if you have type 2 diabetes or prediabetes and get serious about controlling your blood glucose and making healthy lifestyle changes, you can prevent or delay many of the complications associated with diabetes.

For instance, results from a large US National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) study conducted at centers throughout the country over a period of 3 years, including over 3,000 individuals with prediabetes showed the power of lifestyle changes in reducing risk of progression to type 2 diabetes.2

In the study, participants were randomly assigned to different interventions, including an intensive program of lifestyle modification (a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and behavior modification) or drug therapy with the diabetes drug metformin and information on diet and physical activity. Both groups reduced their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but the group that received lifestyle modification had the most dramatic reduction in risk. For participants in this group, a weight reduction of 5% to 7% (this translates to a loss of about 10-14 lbs in a person who weighs 200 lbs) reduced the risk of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes by almost 60%.2

This demonstrates the huge potential for lifestyle changes in reducing diabetes risk. And those lifestyle changes don’t necessarily have to be extreme. To get their exercise, most participants in the DPP study were not running marathons, but walking regularly (at least 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week).

Myth 2: People with diabetes are more likely to get colds or the flu

FACT:If you have diabetes, your chances of getting a cold or the flu (or other similar illnesses) is no greater than someone without diabetes.3 However, having diabetes can increase the chances for serious complications to develop if you have a cold or the flu. So, it is important to get your flu vaccination and to practice good hygiene (frequent hand washing) to avoid getting a cold or the flu. Additionally, having a cold or the flu can make it more difficult to control your diabetes. Therefore, if you have diabetes you should be especially careful when it comes to protecting yourself from getting a cold or the flu.

Myth 3: Pregnancy is not an option if you have type 1 diabetes

FACT:Decades ago, before modern diabetes treatments became available, a woman with diabetes may have been discouraged from becoming pregnant. However, today this is no longer the case. Your pregnancy may not be as carefree as with someone who does not have diabetes, but modern advances in diabetes management have made it possible to have a normal pregnancy, as long as you take a few precautions.

A woman who wants to become pregnant should make sure that her blood glucose is well controlled at the time she conceives. Lack of blood glucose control has been shown to increase the risk for congenital malformation in the developing fetus.

If you want to become pregnant, you should work closely with your diabetes specialist and your obstetrician. It will be very important to maintain blood glucose control throughout your pregnancy. So you will have to monitor your blood glucose frequently and stick to a careful diet and a regular routine of physical activity.

Myth 4: People with diabetes always know when they have low blood sugar

FACT: Low blood sugar, also called hypoglycemia, is a short-term complication that affects many people with type 2 diabetes. It is defined by the American Diabetes Association (ADA) as a blood sugar level of 70 mg/dL or lower. Being aware of hypoglycemia and how to correct it is an essential part of your diabetes care plan. Low blood sugar can results from physical activity, especially in people with type 2 diabetes who are being treated with insulin or oral diabetes medications that cause insulin secretion (called secretagogues), including sulfonylureas and glinides (repaglinide and nateglinide), unless carbohydrate intake is not adjusted to compensate for the increased energy demands of physical activity.4,5

Some people with diabetes who develop low blood sugar may not experience any of signs and symptoms. Typical symptoms of hypoglycemia, which can vary from person to person, include sweating, trembling, feeling anxious, feeling weak, having difficulty with vision, and becoming confused.

Often people with hypoglycemia do not experience early symptoms and, therefore, do not respond until the occurrence of more severe symptoms, such as losing consciousness. This is particularly true for individuals with type 2 diabetes who tend to control their blood sugar more tightly with insulin or those who take certain oral diabetes medications, such as Micronase (glyburide)—particularly older people with kidney and/or heart disease—may be less aware of the early symptoms of hypoglycemia.4

Myth 5: It is possible to have just “a touch” of or “a little” type 2 diabetes

FACT: : There is no such thing as “a touch” of or “a little” diabetes. If you have type 2 diabetes, you have a serious disease that requires careful monitoring and treatment to prevent serious health complications. While you can not have a “touch” of type 2 diabetes, you can have borderline type 2 diabetes, which is called prediabetes. If you have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, you went through a stage where you had borderline diabetes or prediabetes. The process that leads to the development of type 2 diabetes, involving insulin resistance and loss of the ability to produce insulin, develops over a period of 5 to 10 years before high blood sugar is detected.6

Myth 6: If you are overweight or obese, you will eventually develop type 2 diabetes

FACT: : Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, it alone is not the cause of type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is thought to develop in people who are genetically susceptible to the disease and who also have some other risk factor (such as obesity) that triggers the disease. If you are overweight or obese, losing excess weight and keeping it off should be a central part of your diabetes care plan. Losing weight can reduce your risk for both type 2 diabetes and other serious health conditions.7

Myth 7: You can catch diabetes from someone else

FACT: Diabetes is not a disease that you can catch from another person. Type 1 diabetes is thought to result from a combination of genetic susceptibility (if you have certain genes that put you at higher risk) and some environmental factor (such as a virus or some dietary exposure) that triggers the disease. Type 2 diabetes is thought to result from a combination of genetic susceptibility and lifestyle and other factors (for example, obesity, diet, age, inactivity).7

Myth 8: If you have diabetes, you cannot do certain jobs

FACT: If you have diabetes, with a few exceptions, you can have almost any career you want. If you are insulin-dependent, you are restricted from entering the armed forces. However, some people who are diagnosed with diabetes while they are serving in the military are allowed to remain enlisted. Additionally, the US Federal Aviation Administration does not allow people with diabetes who take insulin to work as commercial airline pilots.

Besides these exceptions, a person with diabetes can work in any career for which they are qualified. In 2003, the American Diabetes Association was successful in getting the US Department of Transportation to lift a ban that kept people with diabetes who were insulin dependent from operating large trucks or buses that travel on interstate routes. In some cases, such as with operating heavy machinery or occupations requiring use of motor vehicles, a person with diabetes must be careful to monitor and keep their blood glucose well controlled. However, with some reasonable care and precautions, there are very few occupations that are restricted for people with diabetes.

Learn more about laws that protect my rights in the workplace.

Myth 9: Diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar

FACT: Although eating a diet that is high in sugar can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, eating too much sugar alone is not a cause of diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is thought to result from a combination of genetic susceptibility and lifestyle and other factors (for example, obesity, diet, age, inactivity).7

When it comes to what you eat, most research shows that controlling calorie intake (and body weight) is the most important factor in decreasing risk for type 2 diabetes. In terms of specific foods, a pattern of eating that includes large quantities of foods, such as red meat, processed meats, and beverages sweetened with sugar, may increase your risk for developing type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, a pattern of eating rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and olive oil may decrease your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Therefore, the wisdom is to limit consumption of foods in the first group and increase consumption of foods in the second group.6

Myth 10: Gestational diabetes is not serious and typically disappears after giving birth

FACT: Gestational diabetes is a serious health condition that must be treated carefully. It can result in serious complications affecting both mother and baby during pregnancy, including high birth weight and preeclampsia.8 Additionally, it can increase risk in both mother and child for developing type 2 diabetes later in life.5

Learn more about gestational diabetes.

Written by: Jonathan Simmons | Last reviewed: May 2014.
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