Diabetes is a life-long condition that causes blood sugars levels to remain too high. It's a condition which affects approximately three million people in the UK, with another 850,000 people believed to have diabetes without realising it.
There are several types of diabetes but the most commonly diagnosed forms are type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body is unable to produce enough insulin, a hormone which controls blood glucose levels. This is commonly found in children, although it can be diagnosed at any age, and requires regular injections to help manage the condition.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body either cannot produce enough insulin to properly function or the body's tissues become resistant to the insulin that is produced. This form of the condition is far more common than type 1 diabetes and accounts for 90% of adult diabetics. Typically it affects adults over the age of 40, although it is becoming more common in young adults, teens and children as a result of increased rates of obesity, sedentary lifestyles and poor diet.
The signs and symptoms of type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes has several symptoms, but as it develops gradually over time, it can also take a while for symptoms to develop and become recognisable. People are often diagnosed with few or no symptoms by a blood glucose test, but the main things to watch out for are:
- Tiredness over the course of a day, especially after you've eaten
- Feeling hungry shortly after eating
- Urinating more often than normal, especially during the night
- Excessive thirst
- Itching of the skin and genitals
- Blurred vision
- Wounds and cuts which are slow to heal
- Sudden weight or muscle loss
- Frequent yeast infections
- Developing skin infections.
The impact of type 2 diabetes on our health
Untreated type 2 diabetes can cause a number of long-term health problems. Raised blood glucose can damage our organs, blood vessels and nerves, and can be damaging even if there are no obvious symptoms.
It increases the risk of heart attack or stroke by up to five times in comparison to someone who doesn't have diabetes, as raised glucose levels in the blood can damage the smooth interior surfaces of the artery walls and in doing so encourage the development of fatty plaques. High glucose levels can also lead to nerve damage. Depending on where you are affected, this can lead to numbness and sometimes ulceration in the feet; a tingling or burning sensation in the limbs; and also problems with the digestive system.
Diabetes can also cause retinopathy, damaging the light-sensitive part at the back of the eye and leading to damaged vision. Sixty per cent of people with type 2 diabetes will suffer some kind of retinopathy within 20 years of diagnosis.1 Kidney disease is another potential problem which diabetes is linked to as it can block the small blood vessels within the kidneys. This makes them less efficient, and can lead to high blood pressure and even kidney failure.
Diabetes can also lead to sexual dysfunction, as well as increase the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.
Preventing and treating type 2 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is nothing to do with lifestyle. Lifestyle factors, by contrast, account for the majority of people who develop type 2 diabetes. The main avoidable risk factors for type 2 diabetes are being overweight, a lack of regular exercise and an unhealthy diet. The best way of preventing the condition is simply to live a healthy lifestyle which means taking plenty of exercise, eating a balanced diet high in fibre and healthy fats and low in refined carbohydrates and maintaining a healthy body weight. Not smoking will greatly reduce the risk of complications of type 2 diabetes if you are diagnosed with it.
Measuring your waist is a quick way of examining your own risk. If you fit into one of the below categories, you are at an increased risk of developing diabetes:
- Women with a waist greater than 31.5 inches
- Asian men with a measurement of greater than 35 inches
- White or black men with a measurement over 37 inches.
Losing 5% of your bodyweight and keeping physically active can reduce your risk by more than 50%.
If you are diagnosed with the condition, the good news is that although there is no cure, type 2 diabetes can be extremely well managed through lifestyle and where necessary, medication.
If you are concerned about your risk of type 2 diabetes, you can speak to your doctor or visit the NHS Health Check Programme online.2