For many women, a diagnosis of diabetes seems to come like a bolt out of the blue, with little or no warning. This is worrisome, because once the disease has developed, it can bring on a multitude of health problems. Yet if women at risk are identified when still in the prediabetic stages, the condition is much easier to control and its consequences are far less severe.
Most know that being overweight increases the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes—but few people recognize the various hidden risk factors that can contribute to the disease.
Unrecognized Risk Factors
Insulin resistance is a prediabetic condition in which the body's cells do not efficiently use the hormone insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. Often this progresses to type 2 diabetes, in which the body no longer produces enough insulin or the cells become insensitive to the insulin.
Here are seven risk factors for insulin resistance and/or diabetes. If any apply to you, talk to your doctor now—before diabetes creeps up on you.
- You are of African-American, Hispanic, Asian or Native American descent. For unknown reasons, people within these ethnic groups are at increased risk for diabetes.
- Your mother or father has or had type 2 diabetes. If a parent developed the disease by age 50, your risk is about one in seven-or one in 13 if the parent was diagnosed after age 50. Having a sibling with diabetes also increases your risk.
- You had high blood sugar when pregnant. During pregnancy, a woman's insulin resistance rises, so the pancreas needs to produce more insulin. If the pancreas can't meet this demand, you develop high blood sugar.
If the insulin shortage is severe, you may develop gestational diabetes (diabetes caused by pregnancy). This usually goes away after the baby is born, but it's a clue that your pancreas doesn't produce plentiful levels of insulin. The amount it does make will be enough to do the job if you maintain a normal weight, but if you gain weight, you may not be able to produce enough insulin to supply your larger body.
- Your mother had gestational diabetes when she was pregnant with you.
Theory: Animal studies suggest that excess blood glucose in the fetus's system may be harmful, "programming the baby to be prone to diabetes in the future.
- You weighed nine pounds or more at birth—which suggests that your mother may have had undiagnosed gestational diabetes. Babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes often are large. As the mother's extra blood glucose goes through the placenta, the baby receives more energy than he/she needs to grow —and this excess energy is stored as fat.
- You're 45 or older. A woman's risk for diabetes rises in midlife, especially after menopause. The reasons are unclear but may be related to the weight gain that often accompanies menopause.
- You have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a disorder characterized by irregular menstrual periods, excessive hair growth, acne, obesity and/or insulin resistance. PCOS affects up to 10% of women of reproductive age. We don't know the exact cause, but researchers believe PCOS is linked to excess insulin, which may stimulate ovaries to produce excess androgens (male hormones, such as testosterone). Women with PCOS usually have high blood sugar and are at greater risk for developing diabetes.
Why is it so important to protect yourself from diabetes? In part because the disease itself can have grave consequences—including seizures, blindness, kidney failure, coma and nerve and/ or circulatory problems that can lead to loss of limbs and even death.
Diabetes also increases your risk for other serious diseases.
Reason: Because people with diabetes cannot use their blood sugar efficiently, excess amounts stay in the bloodstream. If left untreated, this can lead to…
- Heart disease. Before menopause, women usually have less risk for heart disease than men of the same age—but diabetes erases this female advantage. Women of any age with diabetes are more prone to cardiovascular problems than are women without diabetes. Over time, high blood glucose levels lead to increased buildup of fatty plaque on the insides of the blood vessel walls. These plaque deposits impede the flow of blood and cause the arteries to harden, raising your risk for heart attack and stroke.
- Breast cancer. Being obese increases a woman's risk for breast cancer after menopause. Many researchers believe that type 2 diabetes, independent of obesity, also increases risk—perhaps due to insulin's effects on estrogen, a hormone that is linked to breast cancer.
- Other cancers. Every cancer studied shows a small but consistent increase in incidence among overweight people with diabetes.
You can decrease your risk for developing diabetes—or for suffering severe consequences if you do have the disease. To optimize your health…
- Maintain a normal weight. If you are overweight, losing even a small amount can improve insulin resistance and lower blood sugar levels.
- Exercise more, even if all you do is add some walking to your daily routine. Try to work up to a brisk 30-minute walk most days. Exercise reduces insulin resistance.
- Eat sensibly. Focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Ask your doctor for a referral to a diabetes educator for help working out the best diet for you.
- Take appropriate medications, if necessary, to help keep your blood sugar at normal levels. Also be conscientious about taking any other medications—for high blood pressure, for example—as prescribed by your doctor.