An estimated 23.6 million Americans (about 8 percent of the population) have diabetes. Of those people, 11.5 million are women over the age of 20, or 10.2 percent of that specific population. Untreated, diabetes can cause severe complications that affect virtually every part of the body, which is why diabetes is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. However, many people manage their diabetes well and live long, healthy lives.

How diabetes develops

The human body's main source of energy is glucose, a simple sugar that comes from the food we eat. Glucose passes through our bloodstream into the body's cells. However, many cells require the hormone insulin to be able to absorb glucose. Insulin is normally produced by beta cells in the pancreas, and in healthy people, eating signals the pancreas to produce the correct amount of insulin to provide cells with glucose.

In people with diabetes, the pancreas produces little or no insulin, or the cells do not respond to insulin. The glucose builds up in the bloodstream, and then passes out of the body in urine. As a result, a diabetic with no outside source of insulin could eat tons of food but their cells would receive no energy.

Types of diabetes

In type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes, the pancreas makes little or no insulin because the insulin-producing beta cells have been destroyed. Type 1 diabetes is less common than type 2 diabetes, accounting for about five to 10 percent of diabetes cases. Formerly known as "juvenile diabetes," type 1 typically develops during childhood or young adulthood but can appear at any age.
Type 1 diabetes is classified as an autoimmune disease-a condition that results when the immune system turns against a specific part or system of the body. In diabetes, the immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. At present, scientists do not know exactly what causes the body's immune system to attack the beta cells, but they believe that both genetic and environmental factors are involved.

In type 2 (noninsulin-dependent) diabetes, the pancreas makes insulin but the body does not respond to it properly (insulin resistance). In time, the pancreas can fail to produce enough of its own insulin and requires insulin replacement. Type 2 diabetes most often occurs in overweight or obese adults after the age of 30, but may also develop in children. Factors that contribute to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes are genetics, obesity, physical inactivity and advancing age.
Type 2 diabetes is on the rise in the United States, and rates are expected to continue increasing for several reasons, according to the CDC. The increasing prevalence of obesity among Americans is a major contributor to the rise in type 2 diabetes. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2004, about two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and almost one-third are obese. And the number of obese children in the United States is growing. Another reason is related to the relatively low levels of physical activity among American adults. (About 50 percent of American adults don't get enough physical activity.)

A third type of diabetes, gestational diabetes, is one of the most common problems of pregnancy. Left uncontrolled, it can be dangerous for both baby and mother.
During normal pregnancy, hormones produced by the placenta increase the mothers' resistance to insulin. Gestational diabetes results when the insulin resistance exceeds the body's capacity to make additional insulin to overcome it. This resistance usually disappears when the pregnancy ends, but women who have had gestational diabetes have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. All pregnant women are routinely screened for gestational diabetes between their 24th and 28th weeks.

Health concerns specific to women with diabetes

  • High blood pressure
  • A higher rate of urinary tract and vaginal infections
  • Menstrual problems
  • Adverse reactions to hormonal birth control methods

(This information was provided by HealthyWomen. For more information on diabetes, click here. HealthyWomen is a NCWO affiliate.)

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