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Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine

Fact sheet
What is diabetes?
How common is diabetes?
Who is at risk of getting diabetes?
How can you lower your risk of diabetes?
Who should be screened for diabetes?
Who are the symptoms of diabetes?
Where can I find more information?

What is diabetes?
Diabetes (also known as diabetes mellitus) is a condition in which the body either can't make or can't use insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone normally produced by the pancreas. Insulin is very important because it regulates the sugar level in the blood, and it allows the body to use this sugar for energy. Without enough insulin, the body's cells can't get the energy they need, the sugar level in the blood gets too high, and many problems can result. Diabetes is not curable, but, fortunately, it is treatable.

There are two main types of diabetes. They are known as type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes (also known as juvenile-onset or insulin-dependent diabetes) usually affects children and young adults. People with type 1 diabetes can't make insulin, so they need to take insulin shots to stay alive.

Type 2 diabetes (also known as adult-onset or non insulin-dependent diabetes) is much more common than type 1 diabetes. In fact 90-95% of diabetes is type 2. This type of diabetes is more common in people who are over the age of 40 and overweight. It also tends to run in families. People with type 2 diabetes make some insulin but either it's not enough, or their bodies just aren't able to use it properly. Many people with type 2 diabetes can control their blood sugar with diet and oral medication, but some people also need to use insulin shots.

There are many complications that come from diabetes and poor blood sugar control. People with diabetes can develop nerve problems, kidney disorders, blindness, and severe infections. They also have a higher risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, like pancreatic and uterine cancer. Each year almost 200,000 Americans die from diabetes and its complication.

Another Type of Diabetes: Gestational Diabetes
About 3-5 % of women develop diabetes during pregnancy, called gestational diabetes. Usually a temporary condition that goes goes away after giving birth, gestational diabetes can nevertheless cause problems for both mother and baby. Some complications include certain types of birth defects, abnormally large babies, and an increased risk of caesarian section. Even if the diabetes disappears after the baby is born, women who have had gestational diabetes also have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

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How common is diabetes?
Diabetes is very common in the United States. Almost 16 million people have it, and the numbers are growing. Most people with diabetes have type 2.

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Who is at risk of diabetes?
Anyone can develop diabetes, but most people that have diabetes are adults over the age of 40, and the risk increases with age. African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders are at higher risk of developing diabetes compared to whites. Also, people who are overweight, inactive, smoke or have family members with diabetes are at a higher risk.

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How can you lower your risk of diabetes?
There are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing diabetes:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get regular exercise
  • Don't smoke
  • Eat a healthy diet that focuses on whole grains and "good" fats (like olive and canola oil)
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Who should be screened?
Screening for diabetes is very important because millions of people have this disease and don't know it. Everyone age 45 and older should have their blood sugar checked by a doctor at least once every 3 years. People who are at higher risk may need to be tested earlier and more often. Screening is easy with simple blood and urine tests that can have important benefits. If you find out you have the disease, you can take steps to treat it and prevent complications.

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What are the symptoms?
Some people develop symptoms like strong thirst, increased feelings of hunger, frequent urination and wounds that don't heal. However, many people with diabetes have no symptoms. That is why screening is important.

For more information about diabetes, visit these web sites: Back to top