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You’ve probably heard of diabetes – known as diabetes mellitus when given its full name – and may even know someone who has the condition. But what you might not realise is that there are two main types of diabetes, Type 1 and Type 2, and they have different causes. However, they both affect the body in the same way. “Diabetes is a condition where the amount of glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood is too high because the body can’t use it properly,” explains Deepa Khatri, Clinical Advisor at leading health charity Diabetes UK. To understand why raised blood glucose levels are bad for us, you first have to know how a healthy body processes food and converts it into energy. Normally, the amount of glucose in the blood is controlled by a hormone called insulin, which is produced by the pancreas – a gland located behind the stomach. When we eat, food arrives in our stomachs where it is digested and enters the bloodstream. At the same time, the pancreas releases insulin that helps move glucose out of the blood and into cells, where it is used as energy. However, in people with diabetes, the body is unable to convert glucose into energy. “This is because either the pancreas does not produce any insulin (known as Type 1 diabetes), or the insulin that is produced does not work properly (known as Type 2 diabetes),” says Khatri. “The result is that glucose builds up in the blood as it can’t be used as fuel.”
Type 1 vs. Type 2: what is the difference?
Type 1 diabetes is far less common than Type 2. According to Diabetes UK, people with Type 1 diabetes accounts for between 5 and 15 per cent of all people with diabetes and usually occurs before the age of 40, often during adolescence. “Type 1 diabetes develops when the insulin-producing cells in the body have been destroyed and the body is unable to produce any insulin,” states Khatri. Think of insulin as the ‘key’ that unlocks the door to the body’s cells. Once the door is unlocked, glucose can enter the cells where it is used as fuel. But in Type 1 diabetes the body is unable to produce any insulin so there is no key to unlock the door and the glucose builds up in the blood,” states Khatri.
Type 2, on the other hand, develops when the body can still make some insulin, but not enough, or the body’s cells do not react to the insulin (which is known as insulin resistance). It is often associated with being overweight and is more common in older people. “Remember that insulin acts as a key unlocking the cells, so if there is not enough insulin, or if it is not working properly, the cells are only partially unlocked or remain locked and glucose builds up in the blood,” states Khatri.
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Are you at risk?
“There is nothing you can do to prevent Type 1 diabetes. ,” states Khatri. However, because it usually runs in families, if you have a close relative – such as a parent or sibling – with Type 1 diabetes, you should be extra vigilant about symptoms because you will have up to a 30 per cent increased risk of developing the condition.
“Some of the risk factors associated with Type 2 diabetes are out of your control while others, such as being overweight, you can act on to reduce the risk of developing the condition,” explains Khatri. She recommends asking your GP for a test for diabetes if you are either white and over 40 years old, or are black, Asian or from a minority ethnic group and over 25 years old and have one or more of the following risk factors:
- A close member of your family has diabetes
- You’re overweight
- You have high blood pressure or you’ve had a heart attack or a stroke.
- You’re a woman with polycystic ovary syndrome and are overweight
- You’ve been told you have impaired glucose tolerance or impaired fasting glycaemia.
- You’re a woman and you’ve had gestational diabetes (a type of diabetes that affects women during pregnancy)
- You have severe mental health problems.
The more risk factors apply to you, the greater your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
That treatment is available?
Although diabetes can not yet be cured, it can be managed very successfully and practicing a healthy lifestyle will have enormous health benefits, enabling a person to continue their normal day-to-day life. As well as ensuring their blood glucose levels stay balanced by eating a healthy diet and keeping active, people with Type 1 diabetes will have to need insulin by injection. Meanwhile, some people with Type 2 diabetes may be able to control their symptoms through diet and exercise alone. However, as Type 2 diabetes is a progressive condition, people may eventually need to take medication, usually in the form of tablets, and sometimes insulin to lower their blood glucose levels.
Reducing the risk
There are ways to ease symptoms, manage blood glucose levels and reduce the risk of developing serious complications. Lifestyle measures, including following a healthy diet, being physically active and sticking to a healthy weight, can benefit general health and make living with diabetes easier.
Diabetes and obesity
The UK is the ‘fattest’ country in Europe with one in five adults overweight and the number of obese adults forecasted to rise by 73% over the next 20 years. As a result, this will see more than a million extra cases of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. According to Diabetes UK, the links between Type 2 diabetes and obesity are firmly established. It states that without the intervention of a healthy diet and appropriate exercise, obesity can develop into diabetes over a relatively short period of time. While awareness is key to addressing the diabetes concern in the UK, it is essential to tackle obesity at an early stage to prevent the spread of the disease.
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