Diabetes Risk Factors

Diabetes Risk Factors

Diabetes Risk Factors

Lee esto en EspañolIf you could spare yourself from a life-changing disease, you’d do it, right? For millions of Americans who flirt with the risk for diabetes, paying attention to diabetes risk factors, and doing something to control them, can make all the difference.

With diabetes, the body can no longer make enough insulin or use the insulin it does make to control blood sugar (blood glucose). Out-of-control blood sugar boosts your risks for stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, blindness and advanced memory loss. So, it’s pretty clear that being proactive is important.

Of course, there are some risks that you have no control over, including your: 

  • Age
  • Race
  • Family history

Moms-to-be are at risk for gestational diabetes. The condition can strike suddenly during a woman’s pregnancy.

Factors like these are all beyond our control. For that reason, they are called non-modifiable risks. But here’s the good news: there are many risks that are modifiable. You can control them with a little bit of effort.

Take Action to Fend off Diabetes

When you put effort into staying fit and healthy, you are your body’s biggest ally against disease and illnesses that can rob you of a happy, active life. Here are some risk factors you can modify.

Weight. Carrying extra pounds is hard on your organs and joints. It derails your body’s natural functions. Sure, losing weight can seem daunting, but every pound you lose can help improve your health. Studies show even a modest weight loss of just seven to 10 percent of your body weight can lower the risk of developing diabetes by nearly 60 percent.

Sedentary lifestyle. People live differently than they did a century ago. Our tech-heavy lifestyles mean we spend a lot of time sitting, and that isn’t healthy. Some experts even said sitting is the new smoking. There are so many good reasons to move your body. Besides helping you maintain a healthy weight, physical activity lowers your blood sugar. It also boosts your sensitivity to insulin – which helps keep your blood sugar within a normal range. Try to exercise at least three days a week for at least 30 minutes each time, and don’t go more than two days without physical activity.

Out-of-control numbers. Three numbers are important indicators of good health – blood glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure. They’re called the diabetes ABCs. When one or more of these levels are higher than they should be, it can damage your arteries. It also sets you up for a greater chance of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Monitor these levels on a regular basis. Talk to your doctor about:

  • A1C monitoring
    Your doctor may want you to have blood drawn for a hemoglobin A1C test. The test can be repeated once every 3 months until your blood sugar is stable and under control, then the frequency of the test may decrease.
    • Normal – less than 5.7%
    • Prediabetes (insulin resistance) - 5.7% to 6.4% 
    • Diabetes – 6.5% or higher
  • Cholesterol
    Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs to build healthy cells. When you eat too many fatty foods, it can get out of balance. A simple blood test will measure all three parts of your cholesterol.
    • HDL “good” cholesterol levels of 60 mg/dl and above is best
    • LDL “bad” cholesterol levels of 100 mg/dl and below is best
    • Your “total” cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL
  • Blood pressure
    About one out of every three Americans has high blood pressure. A blood pressure cuff measures the force of blood against your arteries when your heart beats and is at rest.
    • Normal blood pressure is less than 120 mm Hg systolic (the top number) and less than 80 mm Hg diastolic, which is the bottom number (<120/80)

Smoking. You probably know smoking makes your heart work harder. Chances are you’ve heard it’s bad for your lungs, too. But did you know it can raise your blood sugar? If you smoke, you’re risk for Type 2 diabetes goes up by 30 to 40 percent.

Lack of sleep. Most of us skimp on shut-eye from time to time. “Too much to do and not enough hours in the day” is a common complaint. So we try to economize where we can – and that often means less sleep. Instead, we power through fatigue with coffee and energy drinks. It may seem harmless, but when you log less than seven hours of sleep each night, you boost your risk for insulin resistance. Not sleeping also makes you hungrier, so you’re tempted to reach for junk foods high in carbohydrates and sugar. And in this case, less really is more. Less sleep makes it more difficult to stay at a healthy weight and lose weight if you need to.

Poor diet. In a time when frozen and fast foods make it far too easy to choose convenience over nutrition, we’ve moved away from what our bodies really want and need—fresh, healthy foods that aren’t loaded with hidden sugars and fats. Eating well and in moderation is one of the best things you can do to lower your chance for diabetes. Choose foods that are naturally rich in nutrients, and low in fats and calories. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and heart-healthy fish are all good choices. Sticking to regular mealtimes is good, too.

Be proactive about diabetes prevention. Schedule your annual physical exam. Ask your doctor if you should be screened for diabetes, and discuss steps you can take to reduce your risks.

Find more helpful information about diabetes in our series of easy-to-understand video collection:

Sources: Diabetes Fast Facts, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023; The Path to Understanding Diabetes Starts Here, leaving site icon American Diabetes Association. 2022;  Know Your Numbersleaving site icon American Heart Association, 2021; Smoking and Diabetes, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022; Sleep for a Good Cause, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022; Diabetes Diet: Create Your Healthy Eating Plan, leaving site icon Mayo Clinic, 2022

Originally published 11/9/2016; Revised 2022