In the United States alone, more than 37 million Americans suffer from type 2 diabetes, and about 1 in 5 of them are unaware that they have the condition1. Not only is type 2 diabetes serious and life-threatening on its own, but when it is left untreated, it can lead to many health complications including heart disease, stroke, vision loss, and kidney disease among others. Let’s review what makes type 2 diabetes such a dangerous disease, the cause of it, and we’ll discuss the development of related diseases, and prevention tips.
What Is Type 2 Diabetes and What Causes It?
Also known as adult-onset diabetes, type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition in which your body either becomes resistant to the effects of insulin or cannot make enough insulin to combat your blood sugar levels. The main causes of type 2 diabetes are:
- Your pancreas isn’t making any insulin.
- Your pancreas is making very little insulin (not enough).
- Your body does not respond well to the effects of insulin.
Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas that helps your body to process blood sugar by moving it from your bloodstream into your cells. Once in your cells, the sugar is stored and used for energy. Unfortunately, when your body doesn’t respond well to the process or you don’t have enough in your system, too much sugar builds up in your bloodstream, leading to serious health complications if left untreated. It is important to note here that type 2 diabetes is different from type 1, which is when the body’s immune system destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas2.
What Are The Risk Factors Associated With Type 2 Diabetes?
Certain risk factors that make you more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life. While some of these, like your age and family history, can’t be changed, others like your weight, diet, and level of physical activity are modifiable. The most common risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes are:
- Being overweight or obese.
- Carrying excess weight around your waist.
- Sedentary lifestyle.
- High blood pressure.
- High alcohol intake.
- Unhealthy cholesterol levels.
- Family history of type 2 diabetes.
- Personal history of gestational diabetes.
- Having Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
- Eating an unhealthy diet high in carbohydrates or fat.
- Having prediabetes (blood sugar above normal levels).
- Are of African American, Native American, Hispanic American, or Asian American descent.
Your risk for developing type 2 diabetes becomes a risk factor if you’re over the age of 45 and steadily increases, becoming a significant risk after the age of 65. As you can see, the risk factors for developing this serious disease are numerous, which is what makes it all the more important to routinely get checked for type 2 diabetes by your healthcare practitioner.
The Dangers of Developing Type 2 Diabetes: Comorbid Conditions
One of the many dangers of type 2 diabetes is the fact that it is a progressive condition, meaning that it will get worse over time. As a result, it carries with it several comorbid health conditions that can greatly reduce your quality of life but can also be severely life-threatening. The most common comorbid conditions associated with type 2 diabetes include:
- Heart Disease & Strokes: one of the major dangers of type 2 diabetes is the development of heart disease and stroke. Those with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease or stroke than those without, and are more likely to develop it earlier on in their lifetime3. This is because high blood sugar levels can damage the nerves and blood vessels that control your heart, leading to heart disease. Plus, those with diabetes are more likely to have other risk factors like high blood pressure, high levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol, high levels of fat in the blood (triglycerides), and are more likely to be overweight.
- Vision Loss: as with heart disease, the high levels of sugar in the blood can damage the blood vessels in the eyes, leading to vision loss. Type 2 diabetics may have temporary vision loss until blood sugar levels are managed, or may develop long-term vision loss and even blindness if they experience diabetic retinopathy, diabetic macular edema (swelling in the eyes), glaucoma, and even cataracts.
- Oral Health Complications: oral health complications are common with untreated type 2 diabetes, as diabetes can cause slower wound healing in the mouth, inflamed or bleeding gums, more susceptibility to developing infections, and less saliva production which is needed to keep the mouth clean and prevent cavities. As a result of these risk factors, a lot of diabetics develop periodontal disease (serious infection), which damages the tissues holding the teeth, the bones in the mouth, and the gums4.
- Chronic Kidney Disease: those with type 2 diabetes are at a higher risk for developing chronic kidney disease which results in the progressive loss of kidney function. This occurs because the high blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels and the filters (nephrons) in the kidneys5.
- Nephropathy: in addition to damaging the blood vessels of major organs in the body, type 2 diabetes can also damage the nerves in the body, leading to the development of neuropathies. Common neuropathies include:
- Peripheral Neuropathy: which affects the nerves in your hands, feet, legs, and arms.
- Autonomic Neuropathy: which impacts the involuntary functions you have (digestion, heart rate, urination).
- Thoracic/Lumbar Radiculopathy: which damages the nerves in your torso/chest/abdominal wall.
- Mononeuropathies: which is damage done to a specific and individual nerve.
- Skin Conditions: there are numerous skin conditions that a type 2 diabetic can develop if their condition is left untreated6. The reason for these skin conditions is because the high blood sugar levels cause poor circulation, inflammation, and dehydration in the skin. Examples of skin conditions that diabetics can develop include: diabetic dermopathy, skin infections, blisters, and digital sclerosis, among many others.
4 Prevention Tips You Can Use to Reduce Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Complications
Now that we’ve reviewed the dangers associated with type 2 diabetes, let’s discuss some of the things you can do to prevent yourself from developing related health complications.
- You will need to have your blood sugar levels checked regularly and have them corrected if and when they are too high. This may mean following a prescribed meal plan, taking certain medications, and devoting yourself to a regular physical activity plan to maintain a healthy weight.
- You will need to limit alcohol intake, cease smoking, and manage your stress levels both at home and at work.
- It is highly recommended that you get regular AC1 tests, which will show your doctors what your average blood sugar levels have been over the past 3 months. This will help in monitoring whether the lifestyle changes you’re making are having an impact.
- Both your blood pressure and cholesterol levels will need to be managed so that no further damage is done to your blood vessels, and your risk for heart attack or stroke is reduced.
In addition to incorporating the above into your lifestyle choices, you will need to talk with a dedicated diabetes healthcare team to ensure that your type 2 diabetes is being managed and monitored properly. Your treatment may be unique from another, and because type 2 diabetes can systematically affect your entire body, you must have a team of experts on your side.