Age isn’t the only factor when it comes to weighing the risk of diabetes.

Diabetes is a life-long disease that impacts the way the body handles glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood. But who is considered to be at risk for the disease, and is it true that young people need to be more aware of the risks than ever before?

First, some facts: There are more than 27 million people with type 2 diabetes in the United States. About 86 million people have prediabetes, which means their blood glucose is not normal but is not quite high enough to translate to diabetes.

We went to Anne L. Peters, MD, director of the USC Westside Center for Diabetes at Keck Medicine of USC, to get some real answers on why people get diabetes.

“More people are overweight and inactive, which increases their risk for diabetes earlier,” Dr. Peters, professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, said. “Type 2 diabetes is almost always due to a combination of genes plus the environment.”

Dr. Peters confirmed that aging also increases the risk for type 2 diabetes — with a caveat.

“For many people, aging makes them less active and more overweight,” she said.

“But if people become less active and overweight when they are younger, then they develop diabetes sooner.”

Dr. Peters said most of her patients have a history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease somewhere in their family tree. She added that the leading causes of diabetes today are genes and the environment.

“Our genes evolved from the days when we were running around as hunters and gatherers with an erratic food supply,” she explained. “Now we have an excess of food, not enough exercise and our genes have not evolved quickly enough to change to meet our new environment.

“So our bodies are storing fat, which causes insulin resistance and diabetes. We aren’t exercising enough, which is how our bodies use glucose. Exercise and weight loss make our bodies more sensitive to insulin, while obesity and inactivity make us resistant to insulin and thus diabetes ensues.”

Because young people are more obese these days and don’t exercise enough, they are at risk of developing diabetes more than ever before. Dr. Peters said the most important thing you can do to prevent diabetes is to avoid gaining excessive weight and remain active. If you are overweight, it’s best to lose 7 percent of body weight and to increase weekly hours of exercise.

“It doesn’t usually mean losing 50 pounds or becoming thin,” she said. “For many, a 10-to-15-pound weight loss is all it takes to prevent diabetes.”

There are other risk factors as well, such as being a part of a high-risk ethnic group. According to the American Diabetes Association, you should get tested for type 2 diabetes if you are:

  • Overweight with a BMI (Body Mass Index) higher than 25
  • Over the age of 45
  • Of African-American, Hispanic, Native American or Asian descent
  • Have a family history of diabetes (mother, father, sister or brother with type 2 diabetes)
  • Are pregnant (risk of gestational diabetes)
  • Have a history of polycystic ovarian disease

Dr. Peters recommends a simple blood glucose test to determine if you have prediabetes or diabetes. A normal test shows less than 100 mg/dL in the morning while fasting, while 100-124 mg/dL means you’re pre diabetic and 125 mg/dL and above means you are diabetic, she explained.

Dr. Peters said an alternate test, called the HbA1C or A1C test, can be done any time of day and takes the three-month average of blood sugar levels. Less than 5.6 percent is normal.; 5.7-6.4 percent is prediabetes, and 6.5 percent and above is diabetes.

“The best blood test is a fasting (nothing but water overnight) blood sugar level,” she added.

If you’re concerned about having prediabetes or experiencing symptoms of diabetes, you should contact your primary care physician for advice and to get tested. If you are local to Southern California and are in search of a primary care physician, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/ to schedule an appointment.

By Ramin Zahed