Getting type 2 diabetes can depend on the genetic cards you were dealt and how you’re livin’ life. But the condition can take years to surface, and its symptoms may not be easy to spot.
So how do you know if you have a chance of developing type 2 diabetes? We’ve got the details on type 2 diabetes risk factors and how you may be able to prevent the condition.
What are the risk factors for type 2 diabetes?
While some risk factors for type 2 diabetes are out of your control, you may be able to avoid others by making some lifestyle changes. The common risk factors include:
- family history of diabetes
- being a member of a historically marginalized group
- age over 45
- higher BMI
- past or current gestational diabetes
- lack of physical activity
- excess fat around your belly
- polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
There are three kinds of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes. Type 2 accounts for 90 to 95 percent of all people diagnosed with diabetes and affects about 34 million Americans. Like the other types of diabetes, type 2 causes your blood glucose (aka blood sugar) to be too high.
Type 2 diabetes prevents your body from being able to properly use the hormone insulin, which your pancreas produces. Over time, this can cause your pancreas to stop making enough insulin.
Insulin helps glucose (aka sugar) in your blood enter your cells for fuel. Without the right amount of insulin, sugar builds up in your blood, leading to high blood sugar and potentially a bunch of other health probs.
Type 2 diabetes doesn’t happen overnight — it takes years to develop, and symptoms may show up slowly or be barely noticeable.
Common type 2 diabetes symptoms
- increased thirst and frequent urination
- increased hunger
- blurred vision
- numbness or tingling in your feet or hands
- wounds or sores that don’t heal
- unexplained weight loss
1. Family history of diabetes
Sometimes diabetes is all in the genes. If your parents or siblings have type 2 diabetes, this increases your odds of getting it as well. Research suggests that more than 400 different DNA sequences are associated with type 2 diabetes — these can be passed down from your ancestors.
The American Diabetes Association also mentions that while genetics are a factor in the development of diabetes, aspects of your environment and lifestyle also affect your risk.
For example, families often have similar habits. If you grew up in a family environment with not-so-healthy eating habits and little to no movement, you may continue those habits into adulthood. The good news is that changing those habits could delay or prevent type 2 diabetes.
2. Membership in a historically marginalized group
Another risk factor that’s out of your hands is your racial or ethnic background. People who are part of historically marginalized populations have the greatest likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes — and it has barely anything to do with genetics.
A 2017 review found that type 2 diabetes is more prevalent in folks of African, Hispanic, and Asian descent.
But only 0.2 percent of our genes determine skin color and other physical traits. Instead, the increased risk for diabetes is believed to come from external challenges these populations face on the reg. Factors like income disparity, education level, and discrimination can all contribute to stress and impact your overall health.
Historically marginalized groups are also more likely to live in “food deserts” where there are no grocery stores to access fresh, nutritious foods. And living in a low income, high crime area can mean that people are less likely to be active outside.
3. Age over 45
Diabetes affects 17 percent of folks ages 45 to 64 and 25 percent of those 65 and older.
As we all age like fine wine, our bodies change at the molecular and cellular level. According to the World Health Organization, aging can lead to physical and mental changes that contribute to chronic disease. This can include your ability to use insulin.
Prediabetes means your blood sugar is high but not quite high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes. About 88 million American adults have prediabetes, and more than 84 percent of them don’t know it.
Even if you develop prediabetes, you can still steer clear of a diabetes diagnosis. The American Diabetes Association recommends meeting with a healthcare professional, like a dietitian, to make lifestyle adjustments such as small changes to your diet and physical activity.
5. Higher BMI
Weight can be a sensitive topic, but research suggests that people who are overweight or have obesity are more likely to develop diabetes.
According to a 2015 study, higher BMI levels are associated with the onset of diabetes and complications of the condition, likely as a result of the body’s cells becoming resistant to insulin.
But it’s important to note that BMI isn’t always the best indicator of overall health. BMI factors in only your height and weight, not your body composition.
For example, someone with greater muscle mass may be “overweight” according to the BMI chart but is less likely to deal with health complications than someone with a higher fat percentage.
In a 2018 study, 13.5 percent of people with a “normal” BMI but high body fat met the criteria for prediabetes or diabetes. In comparison, only 10.6 percent of people who were in the overweight BMI category but had lower body fat met the criteria.
6. Past or current gestational diabetes
Your body goes through a lot of changes when you’re pregnant. This includes both hormonal and physical changes, which can lead to insulin resistance (aka gestational diabetes). About half of women who experience gestational diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes.
According to the CDC, all pregnant folks have a little bit of insulin resistance in the later stages of pregnancy. If you already had some insulin resistance before getting pregnant, your insulin needs may be even higher. Staying active and eating nutritious foods can help you manage insulin issues during pregnancy.
7. Lack of physical activity
Chilling on the couch watching “The Office” for the millionth time can be pure bliss for your mental health. But you need some daily movement for the benefit of your physical health.
According to the American Diabetes Association, exercise allows your muscles to better use insulin and take in glucose regardless of how much insulin is available.
A quick walk with your pup, a bike ride, or any other kind of movement can help lower your blood sugar within 24 hours. Studies suggest that moving your body could reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes by 30 to 50 percent.
8. Excess fat around your belly
One thing that makes us unique is that we all have different body compositions. We all have body fat (and we need it for our health), but having a larger amount of fat between your muscles and organs (aka visceral fat) can lead to health issues like diabetes. This is also called transabdominal fat because it shows up around your stomach.
According to a 2016 study, men are more likely to carry more fat around their bellies, which also makes them twice as likely to develop diabetes as compared to women.
9. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
If you don’t have ovaries, then you’re clear of this risk factor that creates an imbalance of reproductive hormones. While the cause of PCOS is unclear, we do know that higher androgen hormone levels can lead to weight gain and insulin resistance.
More than half of women with PCOS will develop prediabetes or diabetes before they turn 40. There’s no cure for PCOS, but treatment options such as medication and lifestyle changes may help manage PCOS symptoms and side effects.
Noticing that a few of the risk factors on this list apply to you? While you can’t change your age or your genes, you may be able to reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes by making some lifestyle changes.
Here are some diabetes prevention tips:
- If you smoke, consider quitting. A 2016 study found that people who smoked had higher blood sugar levels than those who didn’t smoke. This is likely because cell damage from smoking can lead to insulin resistance.
- Move it, move it. The CDC recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity each week. How you want to do it is all up to you! Activities like brisk walking, housework, mowing the lawn, swimming, biking, and playing sports all count.
- Drink up. When you get thirsty, reach for good ol’ reliable — water! A 2015 study found that replacing even diet beverages with water helped decrease insulin resistance and lower fasting blood sugar.
- Eat nutrient-dense foods. If possible, put more fruits, veggies, healthy fats, and whole grains on your plate, and don’t overdo the highly processed foods. A 2016 study found that diets high in processed foods increased diabetes risk by 30 percent.
- Follow up with a doc. If you checked off several of the diabetes risk factors listed here, it’s a good idea to set up an appointment with a healthcare professional. They can help you determine the best route for diabetes prevention.
To get a diagnosis, a healthcare pro will use various tests that involve taking a sample of your blood to see how high your blood sugar is. It may take a few visits to gather enough data.
Depending on the individual and the severity of type 2 diabetes, treatment may require monitoring blood sugar levels and taking oral medication or injectable insulin. Taking an oral med may help your body lower blood glucose levels and use insulin more effectively.
It’s also possible not to need medication at all, or to get off medication. Some folks can manage diabetes by staying active and eating a nutritious diet to help manage their blood sugar.
Many risk factors for diabetes are outside your control, but you may be able to change some others. Even if your genetics and age put you in a higher-risk category, you can focus on lifestyle changes that may prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes.
If you think you have a chance of developing type 2 diabetes, a healthcare professional can help you come up with a prevention or management plan that works for you.