older man checking blood sugar

Knowing Your Diabetes Risk Can Jump-start Prevention

About 115 million Americans either have diabetes or are pre-diabetic. Diabetes is a disease that occurs when there is too much glucose or sugar in the blood, and it is highly preventable. Diet is a large contributor to the development of diabetes, but there are many other factors that can increase your risk. Get to know them and take our quick assessment so you can take control of your health!


Unfortunately, age does play a role in diabetes, with your risk increasing every ten years after 40. Middle-aged or older adults are at the highest risk of developing type 2 diabetes, with a total of 1.7 million diagnoses in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Age can make diabetes harder to control for many reasons. People tend to adopt more sedentary lifestyles as they age, whether it be due to pain, injury, fatigue or other health conditions. With advancing age, our bodies also become less proficient at using up glucose. This is called glucose intolerance, and it sets the stage for type 2 diabetes because the pancreas has to work harder to produce insulin to make up for the increase in glucose in the bloodstream.


High blood glucose is caused mainly by a combination of two factors: insulin resistance and insufficient insulin secretion by the pancreas. Unfortunately, men tend to have a higher risk than women for developing diabetes, and weight distribution may be to blame.

In a study from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, researchers measured the body-mass index (BMI) levels from more than 40,000 women and more than 50,000 men with type 2 diabetes, and also took into account other risk factors, like age or smoking. The data from the study showed that the average BMI at diagnosis was lower for men than it was for women, meaning women have to gain more weight than men to be at a higher risk for diabetes.

If you are a woman, have you ever been diagnosed with gestational diabetes?

Although men have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, women have a unique risk factor: gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that develops during pregnancy and, although it usually goes away after the baby is born, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life increases, says Deborah Kalish, registered nurse and certified diabetes educator and program coordinator at Texas Health Resources.

“About 50 percent of women with gestational diabetes will develop type 2 diabetes 5 to 10 years after the pregnancy,” she says, adding that prevention is possible through diet, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.

Do you have a mother, father, sister or brother with diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes has a strong link to family history, although it also depends on environmental factors. According to the American Diabetes Associations, studies of twins show that genetics plays a very strong role in the development of the disease, but if type 2 diabetes runs in your family, it does not necessarily mean you will also develop it.

Families tend to pass down similar eating and exercising habits, which can, in turn, cause the development of diabetes through generations. Although it may seem like life has dealt you a losing hand when it comes to diabetes, studies also show that making healthy lifestyle changes like exercising regularly, consuming a nutrient-dense diet low in fat, and losing weight can possibly delay or even prevent the development of the disease.

Have you ever been diagnosed with high blood pressure?

High blood pressure and diabetes usually go hand in hand, although it’s unknown why there is such a significant correlation between the two. A diet high in fat and sodium, obesity, and inactivity are believed to contribute to both conditions, though.

If you have high blood pressure, it means your heart is pumping your blood through itself and your blood vessels with too much force, which over time can tire the heart and enlarge it, causing it to work harder. When your heart has to work harder, your risk for diabetes goes up, among other things.

Diabetes also damages arteries and makes them targets for atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. This hardening makes it more difficult for your heart to pump blood throughout your body, which in turn causes your blood pressure to rise.

Are you physically active?

You don’t have to hit the gym every day, but you should get moving every day. Regular exercise is one of the most effective tools to fight the onset of type 2 diabetes. If it’s been a while since you have worked out, Joni Killen, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Texas Health Arlington Memorial, says walking is a great low-intensity option to get moving.

“Just walking around the block is good! It depends on your body and your age and what other conditions you have, but that’s something you want to talk to your doctor about,” she says. “I find that gyms sometimes really get me motivated and then I can continue on my own; having that little bit of help and being able to see everyone else around me just kind of keeps me going, but it doesn’t have to be strenuous. Simply walking around the block will make a big difference every day.”

What range does your weight fall into?

Just as physical activity is important, Kalish adds that keeping your weight under control can go a long way in lowering your risk of developing diabetes.

“Physical inactivity leads to weight gain and the development of obesity. Obesity impairs glucose control and causes insulin resistance, which means your body is not able to use insulin properly,” she explains.

Talk with your doctor about the healthiest weight for you. Together, you can determine your healthiest body mass index (BMI) and ways to achieve it. The higher your BMI, the higher your risk of developing diabetes.

Kalish and Killen agree that sticking with a healthy diet and regular exercise plan should help you meet your desired goal.

“We don’t like to put people on ‘diets,’” Killen says. “It’s really just eating healthy. I like to encourage and say, ‘this is gonna be great for not just you but also your family,’ so when everybody gets on board, everybody will see a difference in how they feel and everybody will be losing weight together.”

Aim for three to five servings of vegetables and two to three servings of fruit per day. Other items on the menu should include lean meats, non-fat dairy products and whole grains. Remember to pay close attention to portion control, and enjoy desserts in moderation.

It’s Never Too Late

The more risk factors you have, the higher your chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Karen Nelson, registered nurse and diabetes program coordinator at Texas Health Fort Worth, says that if you have any of the above risk factors, ask your health care provider to test you for diabetes, and if you’re showing symptoms, don’t ignore them or explain them away.

“Some people with diabetes don’t have any symptoms and the condition goes untreated for years,” she explains. “They may already have complications by the time they’re diagnosed. Sometimes the symptoms of diabetes are mild and we explain them away.”

“For example, a person with blurred vision may just think it’s time to get glasses or to get their prescription changed. A person who’s more tired than usual may think they have a reason to be tired, like long work hours or poor-quality sleep. That’s why it is important to be familiar with symptoms and risk factors for diabetes, so we can follow up with our physician to be tested.”   

The good news is that you can manage your risk, and even if you are already living with type 2 diabetes, adopting healthier habits can still help with management and preventing complications.

“Some of the risk factors for diabetes are things we can’t change, like age or gender, but that doesn’t mean a diagnosis is inevitable,” says Nelson. “Some of the risk factors, like being overweight or inactive, are things we can change through the lifestyle choices we make every day. And even if we don’t prevent diabetes, maybe we can postpone it for a while.”

For more information about diabetes, Texas Health’s diabetes outpatient centers and to take a diabetes risk assessment visit TexasHealth.org/Diabetes


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