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The facts:

- 25.8 million people in the United States (about 8.5% of the total population) have diabetes, of which,  only 18.8 million have been diagnosed.  An additional 7 million people have diabetes, but don’t know it. 
- An estimated 79 million people have “pre-diabetes”
- Adults with diabetes have heart disease death rates 2 to 4 times higher than adults without diabetes.
- Diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults aged 20-74 years.
- Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure
- About 60 – 70% of people with diabetes have mild to severe forms of nervous system damage.
- More than 60% of non-traumatic lower-limb amputations occur in people with diabetes. 
- Diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death in the United States. 

Source: American Diabetes Association,

What is Diabetes?

Simply put, diabetes is a condition where glucose levels in the blood are too high.  Our bodies use glucose, a form of sugar, as fuel.  Most of the food we eat, whether it’s carbohydrates, protein or fat, gets converted into glucose by the body.  The pancreas then makes a hormone called insulin to help the glucose get into the cells of our bodies to be used as energy. 

In diabetics, the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin or it doesn’t use it as well as it should.  This leaves a lot of glucose floating around in the blood stream.  That may not sound like a problem, but it is.  All that extra glucose can damage the body, leading to heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, amputations (especially of the legs and feet) and more.  It’s definitely something to take seriously!

There are three types of diabetes:

Type 1 Diabetes: 

Formerly known as “juvenile diabetes,” this form of diabetes is most commonly diagnosed in children or adolescents and accounts for about 5% of people with diabetes.  In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin.  Patients with type 1 diabetes are “insulin dependent,” meaning they have to take insulin to survive. Type 1 diabetes is considered an autoimmune disorder – the body’s own immune system has destroyed cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.  Genetic and environmental factors may increase the risk of developing this form of diabetes. 

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Unusual thirst
  • Extreme hunger
  • Unusual weight loss
  • Extreme fatigue and irritability

Type 2 diabetes:

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes and may account for 90-95% of all diagnosed cases of diabetes.  You may know this form of diabetes as “adult onset.”  Unfortunately, due to the rise in childhood obesity, we are now seeing many cases of children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

With this form of diabetes, the body either does not produce enough insulin or the cells don’t use the insulin the way they should. Many people with type 2 diabetes are able to control their condition with diet, exercise and oral medications.  Some people, however, will need to take insulin. 

Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include:

  • Older age
  • Obesity
  • Family history of diabetes
  • History of gestational diabetes or having a baby weighing more than 9 lbs. at birth
  • Race/ ethnicity
  • Lack of exercise
  • High cholesterol

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes include the same symptoms as type 1 diabetes, plus:

  • Frequent infections
  • Blurred vision
  • Cuts/bruises that are slow to heal
  • Tingling/numbness in the hands or feet
  • Recurring skin, gum or bladder infections

It’s not unusual for people with type 2 diabetes to have no symptoms at all.  For that reason, if you have risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes, it’s important to have your blood sugar checked at your annual physical exams. 

Gestational Diabetes:

Gestational diabetes shows up in pregnancy and usually disappears when pregnancy is over.  Recent data from the American Diabetes Association estimates that gestational diabetes occurs in about 18% of all pregnancies.  

Untreated or poorly controlled gestational diabetes can harm both mother and baby.  A mother’s insulin will not cross the placenta – but her glucose will.  Excess glucose will cause the baby to have high blood sugar, which then causes the baby’s pancreas to produce extra insulin.  All that extra glucose is providing the baby with more energy than it needs to grow and develop, so it stores the extra as fat.  This can lead to large babies (9 pounds and up), which are harder and riskier to deliver.  Once the baby is born, the pancreas is still making insulin like it did before, but it no longer has all that extra glucose to manage.  This can cause very low glucose levels at birth, which could cause breathing and other problems for a newborn.

Though gestational diabetes usually goes away after pregnancy, it can have long term consequences.  Studies show that when women have gestational diabetes, both mother and baby have a life-long risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  

If you had gestational diabetes and would like more information on how to prevent type 2 diabetes , click here (link to


The good news is that type 2 diabetes can be prevented!  Eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight can all lower your risk for developing type 2 diabetes.  If you are overweight, losing as much as just 10% of your overall weight can lower your risk. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with pre-diabetes (glucose levels are high, but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes), you can still prevent or delay type 2 diabetes!  A study conducted by the American Diabetes Association found that lifestyle changes – like diet and physical activity – were far more effective than medications at preventing or delaying type 2 diabetes in pre-diabetics.  So while a diagnosis of pre-diabetes sounds scary, consider it a blessing, not a curse.  A diagnosis is like a crystal ball – you can see your possible future, but you have a chance to change your path! 

The National Diabetes Education Program (NDEP) has developed a tool kit to help you prevent type 2 diabetes.  Small Steps, Big Rewards – Your Game Plan to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes includes an informational booklet  a fat and calorie counter and a food and activity tracker) – all designed to help you take control of your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

Controlling Your Diabetes:

If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, it’s important to work with your doctor to keep your diabetes under control and reduce your risk for developing complications. 

Understand that diabetes is a chronic health condition.  Diabetes cannot be cured, but it can be controlled.  A diagnosis of diabetes comes with much more than new medications – it comes with a whole new lifestyle – one that you have to learn how to manage. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes and would like to learn how to better self-manage your condition, our Living Well with Chronic Conditions workshop may be able to help!  For more information on our workshops, click here.