According to Diabetes UK, diabetes is the fastest growing health threat of our times, with cases having more than doubled since 1996. Last year, around 3.5million people had been diagnosed with it and worryingly, 549,000 were estimated to have the condition but not know it.
Thankfully though, there are a number of steps that can be taken to prevent or delay its advancement. However, the type plays a pivotal role; as does early detection. To shed light on the complex topic, we asked Emma Elvin, Clinical Advisor for Diabetes UK to decipher the signs for us to ensure we spot the symptoms sooner rather than later.
GTG: What is diabetes and what are the causes?
EE: Diabetes is a condition where the blood glucose levels are too high because the pancreas doesn’t produce any insulin, not enough insulin or the insulin produced doesn’t work properly.
Type 1 diabetes accounts for about 10% of cases, there is no known cause, but we do know it is not linked to diet or lifestyle factors. Type 2 diabetes accounts for about 90% of cases and there are several risk factors that lead to its eventual development.
GTG: What are the symptoms?
EE: As the pancreas does not produce any insulin at all in instances of type 1 diabetes, its symptoms come on quickly and are severe in nature. They include: going to the toilet more to pass urine, weight loss and being very thirsty, dehydrated, tired and lethargic.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or the insulin produced does not work properly (known as insulin resistance). Its symptoms come on more slowly and there can in fact, be no symptoms present to begin with. It can be present for up to 10 years before diagnosis. When symptoms do appear though, they are the same as for type 1 diabetes, except less severe.
GTG: Who’s most at risk?
EE: There are no risk factors for type 1 diabetes. However, it is more common in younger people.
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include being overweight, your age (those over 40 are at higher risk), family history (if your mother, father or sibling has it) and ethnicity. People from Afro-Caribbean, black African, South Asian and Chinese backgrounds are at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes at a lower bodyweight and younger age. We have a ‘Know Your Risk’ tool on the Diabetes UK website and use our Road Shows to create greater awareness of the risk factors.
GTG: Which risk factors are out of our control and which ones are within it? Are there any ways to prevent or delay type 1 or type 2 diabetes?
EE: The risk factors that are out of our control are age, family history, ethnicity and gender. Males are at a slightly higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than females.
Only type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed. We know that around 58% of cases of type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed through lifestyle changes (including getting more physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight). We can’t prevent type 1 diabetes though as we don’t know what causes it.
There are different weight loss diets out there, but it’s all about finding one that works for you and is sustainable in the long-term. Working with your healthcare team can ensure you have the support you need to achieve a healthy weight. However, the advice for the population as a whole to promote good health is to follow a healthy, balanced diet that is low in saturated fat, salt and sugar.
GTG: Is it ever too late to start?
EE: We know that you can have type 2 diabetes for 10 years without being diagnosed, so knowing your risk as soon as possible is really important. That’s why we have the tool and do our Road Shows so we can encourage action as early as possible. Any healthy lifestyle change is a good change.
GTG: What are the best modes of treatment?
EE: For type 1 diabetes, it is insulin through injections or a pump as the pancreas is unable to produce it.
For treatment of type 2 diabetes, it is initially usually lifestyle changes, progressing onto types of medication. As it’s a progressive disease, it can be treated by tablets, insulin and other injectable medication later on. This is not to say though that all those with type 2 diabetes will end up on medication, but the majority do.
GTG: Are there any common misconceptions surrounding diabetes?
EE: Lots! It is very confusing as there are many myths and misconceptions.
The first misconception is that one type of diabetes is more or less serious than the other. All types of diabetes can lead to serious health consequences if not well managed, causing heart, eye and kidney problems and a higher risk of amputation.
A second misconception is that sugar causes diabetes - there is no evidence to show that sugar itself actually causes diabetes, but if eating foods high in sugar means weight gain, that can cause diabetes. There is an indirect link.
For healthy eating recommendations suitable for those with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes, check out the ‘Enjoy Food’ pages on the Diabetes UK website.