Diabetes | Causes & Risk Factors

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What causes diabetes?

When you digest food, your body changes most of the food you eat into glucose (a form of sugar). A hormone called insulin allows this glucose to enter all the cells of your body and be used as energy. Insulin is produced by the pancreas. In someone who has type 2 diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or the body’s cells can’t use insulin properly (called insulin resistance). This causes glucose to build up in your blood instead of moving into the cells. Too much glucose in the blood can lead to serious health problems that may damage the blood vessels, nerves, heart, eyes and kidneys.

Am I at risk? What can I do to reduce my risk?

Talk to your doctor about your risk factors for diabetes. Although you may not be able to change all of them, you can make changes to significantly lower your risk.

What are the risk factors for type 2 diabetes?

Weight

Obesity is the single most important risk factor for type 2 diabetes. The more overweight you are, the more resistant your body is to insulin. To figure out if you're overweight, check the chart and talk to your doctor. A healthy, low-fat diet and regular exercise can help you lose weight gradually and keep it off.

Weight and Risk

Find your height in the left column, then look to the right to find the corresponding weight. If you weigh the amount shown (or more), you may be at risk for diabetes.

  Weight (in pounds)
Height Women
Men
4'9 134  
4'10 137  
4'11 140  
5'0 143  
5'1 146 157
5'2 150 160
5'3 154 162
5'4 157 165
5'5 161 168
5'6 164 172
5'7 168 175
5'8 172 179
5'9 175 182
5'10 178 186
5'11 182 190
6'0   194
6'1   199
6'2   203
6'3   209

Age

The risk for type 2 diabetes increases with age, especially after 45 years of age. Although you can't change your age, you can work on other risk factors to reduce your risk.

Family history

Although you can't change your family history, it is important for you and your doctor to know if diabetes runs in your family. Your risk for diabetes is higher if your mother, father or sibling has diabetes. Tell your doctor if anyone in your family has diabetes.

Race/ethnic background

For reasons still unclear to doctors, some ethnic groups have a higher risk of diabetes than others. You are at greater risk if you belong to one of these groups:

  • Native American
  • Hispanic American
  • African American
  • Pacific Islander

Exercise

Exercising and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your risk of diabetes. Any amount of activity is better than none, but try to exercise for 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week. If you haven't exercised in a while or you have health problems, talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Diet

A diet high in fat, calories and cholesterol increases your risk of diabetes. In addition, a poor diet can lead to obesity (another risk factor for diabetes) and other health problems. A healthy diet is high in fiber and low in fat, cholesterol, salt and sugar. Also, remember to watch your portion size--how much you eat is just as important as what you eat.

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a kind of diabetes that happens only during pregnancy. It occurs in about 4% of pregnant women. Although gestational diabetes goes away after pregnancy, 40% to 60% of women who had gestational diabetes are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes within 15 years.

Even if they don't have gestational diabetes, women who give birth to babies who weigh 9 pounds or more are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life.

Polycystic ovary syndrome

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that occurs when an imbalance of hormone levels in a women's body causes cysts to form on the ovaries. Women who have PCOS are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Multiple risk factors

The risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases with the number of risk factors you have. If you have 2 or more risk factors, talk to your doctor about how to delay or prevent type 2 diabetes.

Bibliography

See a list of resources used in the development of this information.

Source
Portions of this article were developed by the American Academy of Family Physicians in cooperation with the American Diabetes Association.

Portions of this article were developed as part of an educational program made possible by an unrestricted educational grant from LifeScan, Inc., makers of OneTouch Blood Glucose Meters.

Portions of this article were developed with general underwriting support from The Coca-Cola Company.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 05/14
Created: 01/99

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