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 30 million people with type 2 diabetes in the United States. About 84 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 and professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, to get some real answers on why people get diabetes.
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“More people are overweight and inactive, which increases their risk for diabetes earlier,” says Peters. “Type 2 diabetes is almost always due to a combination of genes plus the environment.”
Peters confirms 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 says.
“But if people become less active and overweight when they are younger, then they develop diabetes sooner.”
Peters says that most of her patients have a history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease somewhere in their family tree. She adds 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 explains. “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. Peters says that the most important thing you can do to prevent diabetes is to avoid gaining excessive weight and to remain active. If you are overweight, it’s best to lose 7% of body weight and to increase weekly hours of exercise.
“It doesn’t usually mean losing 50 pounds or becoming thin,” she says. “For many, a 10-to-15 pound weight loss is all it takes to prevent diabetes.”
- Overweight, with a body mass index higher than 25
- Age 45 or older
- 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
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 prediabetic; and 125 mg/dl and higher means you are diabetic, she explains.
Peters says 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% is considered normal; 5.7-6.4% is prediabetic, and 6.5% and higher is diabetic.
“The best blood test is a fasting (nothing but water, overnight) blood sugar level,” she adds.
by Ramin Zahed
If you’re concerned about having prediabetes or are 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.