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Diabetes and Women — what you should know

E. Robert Schwartz, M.D. | 11/21/2013, 9 a.m.

Over the past few decades in the United States, there has been a growing prevalence of obesity throughout our society. Those who are overweight are more likely to be predisposed to diabetes – a chronic disease that is often referred to as the “silent killer” because its symptoms can go unnoticed. The simple and deadly fact is that many people do not know that they have the disease, so it’s important to be aware of the many risk factors.

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E. Robert Schwartz, M.D.

Early childhood obesity is a possible predictor of diabetes. Asian, Hispanic and African American women with an increased body mass index have a greater risk for developing diabetes than the general population.

Family history is also a factor. If you have a sibling with diabetes, your chances of developing the disease are two to three times greater. If your mother or father is diabetic, your risk jumps to five to six times greater. Other important risk factors include eating a poor diet high in fats, doing little exercise, smoking and drinking large amounts of alcohol.

Diabetes affects women differently than men, because the disease can affect both mothers and their unborn children. Pregnant women can be diagnosed with gestational diabetes, which can cause difficulties during pregnancy. Women with diabetes are also more likely to have a heart attack than women without diabetes.

Why does diabetes occur? Every cell in the body needs sugar to help it function normally. Sugar is helped across the cell membrane of all of our tissues by a hormone produced in the pancreas called insulin. When there is not enough insulin – or for some reason the pancreas does not produce it – then sugar builds up in the bloodstream and can damage your tissues. When you have diabetes, one of the first places the sugar is dumped is into your urine. In ancient times, diabetes was actually diagnosed by tasting the urine.

There are two types of diabetes. Type 2 or diabetes mellitus, which is more common, does not cause many symptoms in the beginning. One of the early symptoms you may notice is the need to urinate more frequently. You may also become very thirsty and might develop blurred vision. If not diagnosed early on, type 2 diabetes can cause many serious medical problems later in life. Heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, vision problems, including possible blindness, and loss of feeling in fingers and toes are all possible complications of untreated diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the inability of your pancreas to produce insulin or to produce very little of it. The symptoms are much more severe and can cause one to become very sick, very quickly. Fatigue, mental disorientation, dehydration and many other complications are often associated with type 1 diabetes.

The good news is that early detection can help minimize many of these serious medical complications. Diet, exercise and medications can help lower blood sugar and keep it within normal ranges.

Individuals with type 1 diabetes will most likely need to be on a regimen of insulin delivered by injections on a regular basis.

For many people who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the most common first treatment approach is to make lifestyle changes. These include regular exercise, eating healthy and losing weight if you are overweight or obese. Some patients may also need medications that reduce high levels of blood glucose.

To find out if you have diabetes or are at risk, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. A few simple tests of the urine and blood can determine if you have diabetes or are at risk for it. Early detection is the best way to help you live a healthy lifestyle.

E. Robert Schwartz, M.D., is a board certified family physician at Jackson Memorial Hospital and professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. He can be reached at eschwartz@med.miami.edu.