Are You At Risk For Diabetes?

Gerald F. Joseph, Jr, MD

By Gerald F. Joseph, Jr, MD
President, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Nearly 24 million Americans are living with diabetes today. Diabetes develops when insulin—a hormone that helps glucose from digested food nourish cells in the body—is in short supply or is not functioning properly. In diabetics, unused glucose builds up in the blood stream to higher than normal levels.

Diabetes is increasingly widespread. While roughly 10% of the population over the age of 20 has the disease, another 57 million people are thought to be pre-diabetic. Most cases are diagnosed in people over the age of 45, but diabetes can occur at any age.


Type 1 (juvenile-onset) diabetes usually strikes in children and young adults. It develops when the body’s immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin.

Type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes accounts for 90% to 95% of diagnosed cases of diabetes. The body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin, forcing the pancreas to produce more to keep glucose levels normal. When the demand for insulin becomes too great, diabetes develops.

Some pregnant women will develop gestational diabetes, in which the hormones of the placenta limit the effectiveness of insulin. This form of diabetes occurs in 2% to 5% of pregnant women and usually subsides after delivery. However, gestational diabetes increases the risk of type 2 diabetes later in life.

Diabetes can lead to severe damage to the liver, nerves and blood vessels; blindness; amputation; birth defects or stillbirth; and thyroid problems.

You are at a higher risk for the disease if you are black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, overweight, or physically inactive, or have a family or personal history of diabetes, high blood pressure, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, high triglyceride levels, previous abnormal glucose screening results, polycystic ovary syndrome, given birth to a baby weighing more than nine pounds, or a history of gestational diabetes. If you have these risk factors or experience increased thirst or urination, constant hunger, blurred vision, extreme fatigue, recurrent infections, or sores that are slow to heal, talk to your doctor.

Women over age 45 should be tested for diabetes every three years, but earlier or more frequent testing may be needed in women at high risk. If you have diabetes, talk to your doctor about how to keep it well-controlled. Type 1 diabetics use insulin shots to regulate blood glucose levels. Type 2 diabetes can be managed through diet and exercise in some cases, but insulin shots or medications that lower blood glucose levels may also be necessary.

Healthy lifestyle choices can also lower your risk of diabetes. Try to reach and maintain a healthy weight, eat a diet of healthy and low-fat foods, and get regular exercise.

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