Understand your risk of diabetes

November 11, 2020 Swedish Health Team

Diabetes Awareness Month in November helps shine a light on risk factors and the impact of the disease.

  • Dr. Fran Broyles answers commonly asked questions.
  • Diabetes can increase your risk of severe symptoms and complications from COVID-19.
  • Eating healthy, especially during the holidays, can help you manage diabetes and blood sugar levels.

[3 MIN READ]

You may be familiar with the term diabetes, but until it affects someone you know and love – or you find yourself facing a diabetes diagnosis – you don’t always realize how serious this chronic condition can become. That’s particularly true if it’s left unmanaged. Knowing your risk of diabetes can help you prevent it from developing or manage it if you are diagnosed.

“Diabetes can lead to serious health consequences, including heart disease, high blood pressure and a higher risk of COVID-19 complications,” explains Fran Broyles, MD, endocrinology and system medical director of diabetes, endocrinology and nutrition at Swedish. “Educating yourself or supporting a loved one is key to helping them effectively manage their risk, condition and reduce the likelihood of developing health issues.”

Dr. Broyles shares information on important risk factors to watch for and insight on how you can take control of your health.

What is diabetes?

Before you can understand your own risk of diabetes, it’s important to understand the disease. Diabetes is a chronic condition that occurs when your blood glucose (blood sugar) is too high. This happens when your body doesn’t make enough insulin to carry blood sugar to different parts of your body or when your body doesn’t use insulin effectively.

There are several types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes occurs when your body doesn’t make insulin. It is usually diagnosed in children and young adults but can happen at any age.
  • Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body does not make or use insulin well. It is most common in middle-aged or older individuals.
  • Prediabetes occurs when you have higher than normal blood sugar but it’s not high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes. Your doctor will closely monitor your health and you’ll be encouraged to make healthy lifestyle choices to reduce your risk of developing diabetes.
  • Gestational diabetes only develops in women who are pregnant. It typically goes away after pregnancy, but it can put you and your baby at higher risk of other health issues.

Type 2 is the most common type of diabetes. In fact, out of the 34.2 million Americans with diabetes, only 1.6 million have type 1 diabetes. It’s also estimated that 88 million Americans have prediabetes. (Read the full report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Diabetes risk factors

There are different risk factors for type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Researchers are still working to understand risk factors of type 1, but it most commonly occurs if a parent or sibling has it.

Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes, on the other hand, have several different risk factors including race and ethnicity. According to the National Health Interview Survey by the CDC and the U.S. Census Bureau, among people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, these are the most common:

  • 14.7% American Indians/Alaska natives
  • 12.5% Hispanics
  • 11.7% non-Hispanic Blacks
  • 9.2% Asian Americans
  • 7.5% non-Hispanic whites 18 and older

It’s not clear why certain racial and ethnic groups are at higher risk; factors at play could be healthcare inequity, environment or genetics.

Other risk factors for type 2 diabetes and prediabetes include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Age 45 or older
  • Family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Physically active less than 3 times a week
  • Personal history of gestational diabetes
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Find out your risk with the ADA’s diabetes risk assessment.

Health impact of diabetes

Managing the disease if you’re diagnosed with it is key so you don’t develop related health complications, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Kidney disease
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Skin issues, such as skin infections, itching and skin disorders
  • Eye complications, including glaucoma, cataracts and retinopathy
  • Nerve damage
  • Foot complications, which in serious cases can lead to amputation
  • Ketoacidosis and ketones
  • Pulmonary hypertension

Diabetes and COVID-19

If you have type 2 diabetes, you aren’t more likely to get COVID-19, but you are at a higher risk to develop severe symptoms and complications from the virus, be hospitalized and need a ventilator.

This makes it even more important for you to monitor and manage your diabetes during the current pandemic. The CDC recommends people with type 2 diabetes:

  • Continue to take medication and diabetes
  • Regularly monitor your blood sugar
  • Have at least a 30-day supply of diabetes medicines, including insulin
  • Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions if you feel ill

“It’s always important to pay close attention to your health and especially now,”  encourages Dr. Broyles. “Contact your doctor right away if you have symptoms or if you believe you’ve contracted COVID-19.”

Other health conditions such as heart disease can also put you at a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19.

Diabetes during the holidays

It can be hard to make healthy choices during the holidays. It’s a festive time of year full of good food, tasty treats and delicious drinks. Set yourself up for success before celebrations begin:

  • Enjoy your favorite recipes with a few healthy swaps. Try whole wheat flour instead of white flour; use unsweetened applesauce instead of oil or eggs.
  • Keep track of what you eat. Keep a food log to keep tabs on your blood sugar level.
  • Savor holiday treats. Skip treats you can have any time of the year and enjoy the festive foods, sides or desserts that are unique to the holidays.
  • Avoid or limit alcohol. Alcohol can affect your blood sugar levels, so try to limit it.
  • Avoid overindulging. Grab a small salad plate instead of a dinner plate for the potluck or buffet. Give veggies prime real estate and avoid fatty foods.
  • Balance it out. If you do enjoy a sweet treat, make adjustments to the rest of your day to accommodate the boost of sugar.
  • Stick to your schedule. It can be tempting to skip a meal or cut out a snack so you can enjoy a big feast. But that makes it harder to manage your blood sugar.
  • Be easy on yourself. Instead of striving for perfection, do your best. And if you do overindulge at one meal, get back on track with the next one. 
  • Stay active. Regular exercise can make you feel better, aid digestion and help manage blood sugar. Make new traditions by bundling up after a delicious meal and heading outside for a walk.

Talk to your doctor if you think you’re at risk for diabetes or if you have questions about how you can better manage your disease. Together, you’ll make a plan for your good health.

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Find a doctor

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Find out what we’re doing to keep you safe when you visit.

Related resources

Don't put off your diabetes and blood pressure screenings

Protecting your heart is more important than ever during COVID-19

CDC: National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2020

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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