It used to be that diabetes was a disease typically only among older people who were overweight or unlucky enough to have the disease in their family. But these days, with rising rates of overweight and obesity, diabetes is an equal opportunity condition and rates are rising even among children and teens. More than 9 million women in the U.S. have diabetes and it’s estimated that 3 million of them are unaware they have it.
If you’re overweight, you’re among the 57 million, or 1 in 5 Americans, who have what’s called prediabetes, or higher than normal blood sugar. The sugar levels are elevated but not yet high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes.
Research shows that people with prediabetes will develop full-blown diabetes within 10 years. This is a critical health crossroads—if you have prediabetes, you can delay or even prevent diabetes from happening by making a switch to healthy foods and getting regular activity every day.
How diabetes affects your body
Diabetes affects your entire body: It can damage your liver, kidneys and eyes. If you have diabetes, your risk for strokes and heart attacks are 3 times that of a person without diabetes. Did you know that among people with diabetes, 70% eventually die of heart disease related to having diabetes?
People with diabetes also have much higher rates of depression than those who don’t have the disease. Diabetes damages nerves, which often results in the need for amputation of limbs: 86,000 amputations are done for diabetes-related complications every year in the U.S.
Diabetes in pregnancy
As women develop diabetes at earlier ages, the numbers of women who have diabetes before pregnancy, about 1 in 100, are increasing. One study of pregnant women in California found that from 1999 to 2005 the number of pregnant women with diabetes before pregnancy doubled and the number of pregnant teens with pre-existing diabetes increased 5-fold.
While it’s possible to have a healthy pregnancy and baby if you already have diabetes, it’s extremely important to work with your healthcare provider to closely monitor your blood sugars before and during pregnancy. High blood sugars put you at increased risks for miscarriage, stillbirth and birth defects, such as heart and spinal cord defects.
If you’re pregnant or considering pregnancy, folic acid is an important nutrient to have in your diet every day for at least 3 months before trying to get pregnant to prevent brain and spinal cord defects in their babies.
Diabetes and your health history
Discuss your family and personal medical history with your healthcare provider. Having a parent, brother or sister with diabetes doubles your risk of developing the disease. Other factors that increase your risk include having any of the following conditions gestational diabetes during pregnancy, high blood lipids (fats), high blood pressure (hypertension) or even slightly high blood pressure (prehypertension) and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Being overweight and physically inactive, eating an unhealthy diet and smoking cigarettes will also increase your risk.
Because you can have prediabetes or diabetes and not know it, it’s important to have your blood sugar tested regularly. Start at age 45 if you’re not otherwise at risk for the disease, says the American Diabetes Association. If you’re younger than 45 but overweight or have any of the other risk factors, you should begin testing. If your test is normal, you can wait 3 years before retesting. If the results show you’re developing prediabetes, you should be tested every 1 to 2 years.
You should also have your blood pressure and blood lipids (fats) tested because abnormal values of either indicate that you are at increased risk of diabetes.
It’s so much easier to avoid a disease than deal with the disabilities and costs of disease. A recent study showed that people who ate whole grains, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds and fruits and vegetables were less likely to develop diabetes than those who ate diets heavy on processed meats, high-fat foods and sugared sodas. The results held true across ethnic groups and whether or not participants were overweight.
Healthy eating can create weight loss, and even a loss of 10 to 15 pounds has been shown to prevent or delay diabetes by as much as 58%.
Increasing your physical activity will pay off, especially if you are prediabetic or at risk for diabetes. Regular physical activity (30 minutes or more, most days of the week) can lower your blood sugar and blood pressure, improve your body’s ability to use insulin and decrease your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Additionally, children growing up in households stocked with plenty of whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables and few sugared sodas and refined carbohydrates can lower risk for diabetes for years to come. And living in homes where adequate physical activity is part of daily life can have similar effects.
If you have a daughter, consider that raising her with health habits that lower her lifetime diabetes risk means that she also will be lowering her risk for diabetes in pregnancy and the potential problems it can cause for her and a baby. What you do today to protect your own health can have positive effects for generations to come.
About the Author: Catherine Ruhl, CNM, MS, is associate director of women’s health for AWHONN in Washington, DC. and author of the Health Sense column on Health4Women.org; read her columns here.