Diabetes is a metabolic disease characterized by the body's inability to produce or properly use insulin, a hormone needed to regulate blood sugar and turn glucose and other nutrients into energy for the body. Though no one knows what causes diabetes, many theories exist that suggest genetics, environment, lifestyle, diet and lack of exercise may all play a role in certain types of diabetes. An estimated one in 400 children and adolescents and as many as 26.9 percent of adults over age 65 have diabetes. While many people assume that diabetes is not a serious health condition, diabetes is responsible for more deaths each year than AIDS and breast cancer combined. With proper treatment, however, diabetics can usually lead normal lives with few, if any, complications.

Types of Diabetes

There are three main types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, is most commonly diagnosed in children, adolescents or young adults. This type of diabetes accounts for only five percent of all diabetes in the United States, and is the result of the body not producing insulin. People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin daily to manage their diabetes and help their bodies function properly. There is no cure for type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is by far the most common type of diabetes, affecting nearly 26 million adults and children in the United States, with another 1.9 million Americans diagnosed every year. According to the American Diabetes Association, an estimated one in three adults will have diabetes by the year 2050 if present trends continue. Type 2 diabetes is believed to be linked to poor diet, lack of exercise and obesity, though other factors may also contribute to the condition, such as genetics and environmental factors. While there is no cure for type 2 diabetes, some individuals have successfully reversed the condition through strict diet and exercise regimens. Most people with type 2 diabetes must take daily medication to help control their blood sugar.

Other types of diabetes include gestational diabetes, which occurs during pregnancy and usually goes away after birth, and rare types of diabetes resulting from genetic disorders or syndromes, surgery, certain drugs, malnutrition and other infections or illnesses. Gestational diabetes may lead to complications during pregnancy and can affect the fetus if not properly treated. Women who have had gestational diabetes, are at a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes later on. Babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes may also be at a greater risk of developing diabetes themselves later in life.

Diabetes Signs and Symptoms

Diabetes, especially type 2, can go undetected for some time before causing noticeable symptoms. When symptoms occur they typically include excessive thirst or hunger (even right after eating), fatigue, frequent urination, blurred vision, unexplained weight loss (type 1), tingling, numbness or pain in the hands or feet (type 2), and cuts or bruises that take a long time to heal. Other symptoms of diabetes may include skin rashes or darkening of the skin, frequent yeast infections, and irritability.

Symptoms of diabetes are often ignored or written off as something else, such as exhaustion or stress. However, symptoms like increased thirst, frequent urination and blurred vision should be reported to your doctor right away. The earlier diabetes is diagnosed, the higher the chance that treatment will be effective. Even when diabetes symptoms are not obvious or present, getting a diabetes test done on a regular basis is a good idea, especially if you're over age 45 or considered to have a higher risk of developing diabetes.

Diabetes Diagnosis and Treatment

If your doctor suspects diabetes, he may run tests to check blood glucose levels. An A1C test measures blood glucose over the past two or three months and does not require fasting or drinking anything. If your A1C test comes back higher than 6.5 percent, diabetes will be diagnosed. Levels between 5.7 percent and 6.4 percent indicate prediabetes, while anything less than 5.7 percent is considered normal. Other diabetes tests may include a Fasting Plasma Glucose (FPG) test, which checks fasting blood glucose levels after eight hours of no food or drink (except water), and the Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT) - a two-hour test that involves drinking a sweet liquid, with blood drawn both before and then two hours after the drink. The glucose levels will tell your doctor how well your body processes glucose.

If diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor will work with you to come up with a plan to keep your blood sugar under control. This may involve medications to help control blood sugar levels, changes to diet, an increase in exercise, lifestyle changes and, in some cases, daily insulin injections. For those with type 1 diabetes, an insulin pump may be considered, which is a device that automatically administers insulin without the need for daily injections.

Diabetes Risk Factors and Prevention

While no one knows exactly what causes diabetes, there are certain risk factors that may increase your chances of getting diabetes. Risk factors for type 1 diabetes include having a family history of diabetes and certain environmental triggers, such as a toxin or virus. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, is considered a preventable disease, as many of the risk factors are controllable. Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include obesity, especially when fat is stored primarily around the abdomen, being sedentary or inactive, having a family history of type 2 diabetes, being over the age of 45, having a history of gestational diabetes and being diagnosed with prediabetes.

While some risk factors cannot be controlled, many can be controlled to prevent type 2 diabetes from developing. For example, research shows that losing just five to seven percent of body weight can significantly reduce the risk of diabetes in overweight or obese individuals. Getting regular exercise (at least 150 hours per week) and making significant lifestyle changes can also help prevent diabetes. Other prevention methods include quitting smoking and cutting down on alcohol consumption. For more ways to help reduce your risk of developing diabetes, talk to your doctor about dietary and lifestyle changes you should make.