With the new year came a variety of diabetes-related news. First, reality show star Rob Kardashian was reportedly diagnosed with diabetes and hospitalized for diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). We can’t confirm or deny the specifics of these reports or what type of diabetes Kardashian may have, but we did notice many medical inaccuracies in the news, which is unfortunately all too common in content written about diabetes. As always, our thoughts are with the Kardashians and the thousands of families who face a diabetes diagnosis every day.
And as of Jan. 1, American Girl dolls can be outfitted with their own diabetes care kits, complete with an insulin pump, glucose tablets, a log book and more—all items used by people to take care of their diabetes, especially when they must take insulin. We celebrate any efforts to embrace diabetes awareness and inclusion, especially if it helps young people with diabetes feel more understood and less alone.
Diabetes ought to be front-page news year-round; we need a robust national conversation to fuel the fight against America’s most urgent chronic health crisis. Diabetes, in all its forms, is a very serious disease. But while every headline shines a much-needed spotlight, it can also leave room for confusion about type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
The complexity of diabetes makes it ripe for myths and misinformation—so let’s get back to the basics. While there are certainly distinct differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, you may be surprised to learn how much they also have in common.
It starts with understanding the hormone insulin, which is produced in the pancreas. It’s what gets glucose from the food we eat out of the bloodstream and into the cells of the body, giving us the energy necessary for life. In short, you can’t survive without it.
In people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the cells that make insulin. Eventually, all of these cells are destroyed and the body no longer makes its own insulin. Those with type 1 diabetes must inject insulin as a medication for the rest of their lives. Although most often diagnosed in children, type 1 diabetes can affect people at any age.
Type 2 diabetes is the more common form, affecting 90 to 95 percent of Americans with diabetes. With type 2, the body typically still makes some insulin but is not able to use it correctly and may not make enough of it. Type 2 diabetes is more common among adults, but children can develop it as well. It is treated with healthy eating, physical activity, oral medications and sometimes insulin or other injectables.
An additional 86 million Americans have a condition called prediabetes, which puts them at serious risk for developing type 2 diabetes. And as many as 9.2 percent of women develop a usually temporary form of diabetes during pregnancy, called gestational diabetes, which can cause health risks to the developing fetus and during labor. Gestational diabetes also puts a mother at higher risk for type 2 later on and may set up her infant for health problems later in life, too.
With these fundamentals outlined, let’s explore some striking similarities that unite all people affected by diabetes.
Diabetes is genetic. Two factors are important in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes: You inherit a predisposition to the disease, then something in your environment triggers it. In most cases of type 1 diabetes, people inherit risk factors from both parents. Researchers speculate that the triggers could be anything from weather to viruses, but exact causes are still unknown. Meanwhile, type 2 is influenced by genetics, family history, age and inactivity. Being overweight is a major risk factor for developing type 2, but it’s important to note that most overweight people never develop type 2, and many people with it are at a normal weight or only moderately overweight. (For the record, diabetes is not directly caused by eating or drinking too much sugar.)
Diabetes has a common set of symptoms. Frequent urination, blurry vision, extreme thirst and fatigue are all hallmarks of diabetes, though the onset for type 1 is typically more sudden and some people with type 2 have symptoms so mild that they go unnoticed.
Both types of diabetes require a healthy lifestyle—and sometimes insulin treatment. Just to survive, people with type 1 must take multiple injections of insulin daily or continually infuse insulin with a pump. Multiple daily blood glucose checks and healthful eating and regular physical activity are also important in their everyday diabetes management. For most people, type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease. Over time, the body gradually produces less and less of its own insulin, and eventually oral medications may not be enough to keep blood glucose levels normal. The need for insulin treatment doesn’t mean the person with type 2 has failed—or that his or her diabetes has suddenly become type 1. It just means that person’s body needs more insulin than the body can produce on its own.
All types of diabetes are serious. High blood glucose levels and long-duration diabetes can lead to devastating and life-threatening, long-term complications, including heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, blindness and limb loss. Severe low blood glucose and high blood glucose can pose immediate health dangers and death if untreated. Diabetes takes a staggering physical, emotional and financial toll on our country—to the tune of $245 billion—every year.
Diabetes has no cure. At this time there is no cure for diabetes. We don’t yet know how to prevent type 1 diabetes. We know that type 2 can sometimes be prevented or delayed through lifestyle changes, such as increased exercise and healthful eating. But even if people with type 2 manage to bring their blood glucose levels to a normal range without medication, they still have diabetes. We work with researchers every day to unlock the puzzles of diabetes. Finding a cure, preventing the disease and its complications when we can and supporting those affected by diabetes is at the very core of the mission of the American Diabetes Association®.
You can live well with diabetes. With good information, education, medical care and support, people with diabetes can enjoy a long, productive life. As barriers to discrimination have been lifted, particularly in the 25 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, there is very little that people with diabetes can’t do in life or career: play professional sports, join law enforcement, become a Supreme Court justice, you name it!
Diabetes is a dangerous foe, and misinformation about it can directly and indirectly harm people. We urge you to join us in spreading the facts about diabetes.
What do YOU wish more people knew about diabetes? Tell us in the comments!