Aging & Health A to Z
Basic Facts & Information
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes develops when the amount of sugar in your blood becomes too high, either because your body doesn’t make enough insulin (type 1 diabetes), or because your body doesn’t respond to insulin (type 2 diabetes).
When your body digests food, it converts much of it into glucose, a sugar that your body’s cells need for energy. The hormone insulin helps your body use glucose, and also helps maintain healthy blood levels of glucose.
When your body produces too little insulin, or can’t respond to it, glucose tends to remain in your bloodstream, instead of going into your cells.
The Most Common Types of Diabetes
Type 1 Diabetes
In type 1 diabetes, your body destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. That’s why people with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin injections or use an insulin pump to control their blood sugar. Though Type 1 diabetes usually occurs in children and young adults, it can occur at any age. Only 5 to 10 percent of people with diabetes have type 1. You can’t prevent this form of diabetes.
Type 2 Diabetes
In type 2 diabetes, your pancreas can’t produce enough insulin for your needs, or your cells can’t use insulin properly (insulin resistance). Older adults are especially prone to type 2 diabetes, because aging makes the body less accepting of sugars. What’s more, being overweight makes your chances of developing type 2 diabetes extremely high. Most people can prevent or control type 2 diabetes by eating a healthy diet and by being physically active.
What are Pre-diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome?
In pre-diabetes, your glucose levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be called diabetes. Pre-diabetes increases your risk for developing type 2 diabetes and other problems, including heart disease. Over 57 million people have pre-diabetes. Often, pre-diabetes occurs along with other warning symptoms, such as elevated blood pressure, cholesterol problems, and other risk factors for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This cluster of symptoms is called “metabolic syndrome.”
Here’s the good news: You can prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes and lower your risk for heart disease and other problems, by losing weight and increasing your level of physical activity. In fact, according to a large prevention study of people at high risk for diabetes, people aged 60 and older who lost weight and exercised were able to reduce the development of diabetes by 71 percent, compared to people who didn’t.
How Common is Diabetes?
More than 40% of all cases of diabetes in the U.S. occur in people aged 65 and older. Type 2 diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases of aging. It develops in up to one in five older adults.
Updated: March 2012
Posted: March 2012