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Diabetes: are you at risk?

There are thought to be over 4 million children and adults in the UK living with diabetes, many of them undiagnosed. Are you aware of the risks of this serious disease?

How common is diabetes?

Gather 20 people in a room and, statistically, one will have diabetes. What's more, the charity Diabetes UK estimates that there are 850,000 of us who have the condition and don't even know it - it's that common.

3.5 million people in the UK have been diagnosed with diabetes. Coupled with the suspected number of undiagnosed cases, it's likely that over 4 million adults and children are living with the disease.

Diabetes health risks can be life threatening. They include blindness, heart disease and stroke.

With the number of cases still on the rise, it's important we all know about this disease - the different types, how it can be stabilised, and how to live in a way that lowers your risks.

What is diabetes?

There are in fact three types of diabetes - type 1, type 2 and gestational - but all arise from problems with insulin.

Your cells are fuelled by glucose, a sugar that your body produces by breaking down the sugars and carbohydrates you eat. In order to process glucose, your cells need a hormone called insulin.

With diabetes, three problems can occur: either your body doesn't make enough insulin, it can't use the insulin it does produce, or there's a combination of both issues.

Since your cells aren't using the glucose, it builds up instead in your blood. In high levels, this can damage the tiny blood vessels in your body and, if left untreated, can cause heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and blindness.

Let's look at the three types of diabetes in more detail.

Type 1 diabetes

People with type 1 diabetes can't produce the insulin they need to help their cells take in glucose. Insulin should be produced by the pancreas, but it is damaged when the body attacks it with antibodies.

Type 1 can be a genetic problem that runs in the family. It can also be the result of faulty beta cells in the pancreas that normally produce insulin.

The treatment therefore involves giving the body insulin that it cannot produce itself. This may be injected by syringe, insulin pen, a jet injector that sends a spray of insulin under the skin, or a pump that provides insulin into the abdomen.

Type 1 diabetes needs careful management, with frequent testing of blood sugar levels and a carefully structured diet and exercise plan. Managed properly, people with the condition can lead long and active lives.

Type 2 diabetes

The vast majority of people with diabetes have type 2 (around 90% in the UK).

Type 2 diabetes used to be known as 'maturity onset diabetes' because it would tend to develop in adulthood.

However, today's reality is that a surge in cases is being caused by obesity in childhood, resulting in many teenagers developing the disease.

Unlike type 1, type 2 sufferers can generally produce some insulin. Even so, either the pancreas can't produce enough, or the body's cells develop a resistance to it.

This insulin resistance means that the pancreas has to work overly hard to produce more insulin - and even then, it isn't enough to keep blood sugar levels normal.

Obese people are prone to insulin resistance, and therefore have a high-risk of developing type 2. Although it can be controlled with a planned approach to managing weight, exercise and diet, the disease tends to develop to the point where drugs are also needed.

Gestational diabetes

This same insulin resistance can be triggered by pregnancy, leading to gestational diabetes. It often develops mid- to late-term in pregnancy.

This occurs in around 4% of pregnancies and needs to be controlled carefully, since any high blood sugar levels in the mother may reach the baby via the placenta.

If this happens, risks to the baby may include abnormal weight gain before birth, breathing problems, and a higher risk of obesity and diabetes in later life. The mother may also need a caesarean section if the baby is unusually large.

Treatment during pregnancy includes careful meal planning, daily exercise, managing pregnancy weight-gain and, if needed, controlling blood sugar levels with insulin.

Learn more about looking after your health during pregnancy

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