Understanding type 2 diabetes

Even if you've been managing your diabetes, it's important to understand as much as you can about it. This includes what diabetes is, who's at risk for it, and how it's treated.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease that occurs when your body can't properly use and store sugar. When this happens, sugar builds up in your bloodstream. This results in “hyperglycemia,” which is commonly referred to as high blood sugar. Symptoms of high blood sugar include:

  • Fatigue
  • Being very thirsty
  • Urinating more than normal
  • Increased hunger
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Cuts or wounds that heal very slowly

In type 2 diabetes, your body may not make enough insulin, respond to it properly (insulin resistance), or both. Most adults with diabetes in the United States (about 90% to 95%) have type 2 diabetes. This is usually diagnosed in people who are older or overweight. In fact, it is estimated that 80% of people who have type 2 diabetes are overweight.

Who is at risk for type 2 diabetes?

Anyone can get type 2 diabetes, but some people are at greater risk than others. Some common risk factors include:

  • Being older than 40 
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having a family member such as a parent, brother, or sister who has diabetes
  • Being a member of a high-risk ethnic group, which includes African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans

Are people with type 2 diabetes at greater risk for heart attack or stroke than those without diabetes?

If you have type 2 diabetes, you’re more likely to develop heart disease. You’re also at greater risk of heart attack (including silent, undetected heart attacks), stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes. Part of the reason is that people with diabetes are more likely to have conditions that can lead to heart disease and stroke, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity.

Lack of physical activity and smoking can also lead to cardiovascular disease. Over time, high blood sugar caused by type 2 diabetes can damage your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart. So the longer you have type 2 diabetes, the greater your risk is for developing heart disease. In fact, people with type 2 diabetes who reach their A1C goal are still at risk for heart attack and stroke.

How is type 2 diabetes treated?

Most people who have type 2 diabetes will need to combine a healthy meal plan and some exercise (such as walking) with diabetes medication to help keep their blood sugar levels in the target range.

Your health care provider will let you know when it's time to add medication to your diabetes care plan. He or she will also let you know if you've reached a point when it's time to change your medication because your diabetes has changed.

The more you know about diabetes medications, the more you will be able to work with your health care provider to choose the treatment plan that best meets your needs. The most recent treatment guidelines from the American Diabetes Association recommend treatment plans that are based on individual patient needs—and that means your health care provider may get you more involved in the process.

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