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What are the risk factors for developing diabetes?

The risk factors for developing diabetes actually vary depending on where a person lives. This is in part due to the environment the person lives in, and in part due to the genetic makeup of the family. In the United States, it is estimated that one in three males and two out of every five females born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes (the lifetime risk). It has also been calculated that for those diagnosed with diabetes before the age of 40, the average life expectancy is reduced by 12 years for men, and 19 years for women.

The risk for developing diabetes increases in certain cases such as the following.

  • Genetics: People with a close relative with type 2 diabetes are at higher risk.
  • Ethnic background: For example, the actual prevalence of diabetes in the Caucasian population of the US is about 7.1% while in the African American population; it increases to about 12.6%. Approximately 8.4% of Asian Americans and 11.6% of Hispanic Americans are affected. In a well-studied group of Native Americans, the Pima Indians, the prevalence increases to almost 35%.
  • Birth weight: There is a relationship between birth weight and developing diabetes, and it's the opposite of what one might intuitively think. The lower the birth weight, the higher the risk of type 2 diabetes. At the other end of the spectrum, a very high birth weight (over 8.8 pounds or 4 kg) also is associated with an increased risk. Additionally, mothers of infants who had a higher birth weight (over 9 pounds) are at increased risk for developing diabetes.
  • Metabolic syndrome: People who have the metabolic syndrome are at especially high risk for developing diabetes.
  • Obesity: Obesity is probably the most impressive risk factor and in most situations the most controllable. This is in part due to the fact that obesity increases the body's resistance to insulin. Studies have shown that reversal of obesity through weight reduction improves insulin sensitivity and regulation of blood sugar. However, the distribution of fat is important. The classic "pear" shaped person (smaller waist than hips) has a lower risk of developing diabetes than the "apple" shaped person (larger around the waist). The exact reason for this difference is unknown, but it is thought to have something to do with the metabolic activity of the fat tissue in different areas of the body.
  • Gestational diabetes: Women who have gestational diabetes during pregnancy have a greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Return to Diabetes Prevention (Type 2)

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