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Understanding Diabetes Risk Factors

Since the 1950s, the number of people with diabetes in the United States has steadily increased, and today, more than 11% of Americans have diabetes. This statistic is alarming – and it means that you or someone you know either has or will develop diabetes in the future. Because this percentage continues to rise, it is important to recognize the risk factors that accompany diabetes and pre-diabetes.

Defining diabetes

Understanding what diabetes is and what we can do to lessen our likelihood of developing diabetes is one of the most important steps in prevention of the disease. According to the CDC:

Diabetes is a chronic (long-lasting) health condition that affects how your body turns food into energy. Most of the food you eat is broken down into sugar (also called glucose) and released into your bloodstream. When your blood sugar goes up, it signals your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin acts like a key to let the blood sugar into your body’s cells for use as energy. If you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t use the insulin it makes as well as it should. When there isn’t enough insulin or cells stop responding to insulin, too much blood sugar stays in your bloodstream. Over time, that can cause serious health problems, such as heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease.

Potential risks

Looking at comorbidity trends across the United States, we see that obesity is one of the leading causes of pre-diabetes and diabetes. As obesity rates continue to increase nationwide, so do cases of diabetes. Public perception often links obesity and diabetes, but there are myriad other risk factors that also increase the likelihood of diabetes.

Some of these are: a sedentary lifestyle, a family history of diabetes, race, less education, and lower household income. While these factors are the most prevalent in diabetes development, they are not the only ones. It is important to take a look at potential risk factors and address any concerns with your primary care provider – and that also includes an annual screening for diabetes.

A general screening is helpful, but should be considered urgent when your BMI is greater than or equal to 25, you have existing or familial history of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, polycystic ovarian syndrome, or are a higher risk ethnicity (African American, Native American, Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander).

Preventive measures

While there is no cure for diabetes, there are ways to minimize risks. In fact, preventing obesity through diet and exercise is one of the earliest and most effective steps you can take to mitigate risk and symptom severity of diabetes.

According to Sarah Kim, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine and Director of the UCSF Diabetes Teaching Center, 150 minutes (about two and a half hours) of exercise per week is extremely helpful in maintaining a healthy weight. If your work life is hectic, make it a goal to begin and end your week with an hour of exercise. Or increase a light workout to its full potential by using it as a means of de-stressing midweek. However you choose to incorporate exercise into your life, it is one of the most important factors in maintaining strong cardiovascular health and mitigating risk of diabetes.

In addition to moderate exercise, paying attention to what you eat is just as important in creating a strong defense against diabetes and pre-diabetes. Kim explains that a low-fat diet is the most effective when it comes to combating diabetes symptoms and the development of diabetes. When most people think of a low-fat diet, they immediately think a restriction of carbohydrates is the most effective method, but Kim notes that carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to function at their fullest. She notes, “The quality of the carbohydrate is more important.” Instead of eliminating carbohydrates altogether, source them from food such as whole grains, fruit (not fruit juice) and vegetables. Being mindful of labels and added sugar is another way to ensure you prioritize the quality of your food, as opposed to simply eliminating certain food groups, which can hurt your body even more.

To learn more about risk factors for diabetes or how to manage a diagnosis, visit the American Diabetes Association.