What causes diabetes in older people (1)
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What causes diabetes?

7 min read

Around five million people in the UK have some form of diabetes, but what causes diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition when the body can’t break down the glucose that we get from food.

This glucose is normally turned into usable energy but this doesn’t happen with diabetes.

In this blog, we'll look at what causes diabetes.

Here’s a summary of what we’ll cover in this article:

  • Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes are becoming increasingly common
  • Lifestyle factors such as being overweight and inactivity heighten the risk of developing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes
  • Prediabetes is considered to be reversible and gestational diabetes is usually resolved after you give birth
What causes diabetes

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition when the body can’t break down the glucose that we get from food into usable energy. 

Types 1 and 2 diabetes are both considered chronic conditions.

This means that they are continuous, and there is no ‘cure’ for either condition at present. 

When food is eaten and digested, glucose (a type of basic sugar, broken down from food) passes into the bloodstream. 

Insulin (a hormone) is produced in the pancreas.

What does insulin do?

This insulin moves glucose from the blood and into the cells of the body.

When the glucose gets to the cells, it is used up as energy to fuel the body and its many processes. 

Diabetes means that there is a problem with how the body makes insulin.
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Either the insulin doesn’t work properly, or there is not enough of it to move the glucose around the body.

Muscle tissues, the liver and fat cells are often affected. 

What does glucose do?

Glucose is the brain’s main source of fuel. When the brain is starved of fuel, many other processes in the body can be affected.

As glucose is the body’s primary fuel source, this makes for a difficult situation.

All of the body’s processes are affected by diabetes, though this is not always immediately obvious. 

This lack of energy in these cells can lead to some of the symptoms of diabetes. 

For instance, excessive fatigue, and skin failing to heal after injury.

Ultimately, diabetes is characterised by high levels of sugar in the blood.

The insulin is not able to move enough of it out of the bloodstream and into the cells. 

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How common is diabetes?

Diabetes is becoming more common – around five million people in the UK have some form of diabetes and many are wondering what causes diabetes.

There are around 13 million people in the UK who are now at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

Type 2 diabetes is the most common – type 1 diabetics make up only 8% of the people who have diabetes.  

Despite being a condition that mainly affects how the body processes sugars, it has many other side effects.

Side effects of diabetes

Diabetes leads to almost 10,000 leg, toe or foot amputations per year. 

And more than 700 people per week sadly die prematurely from diabetes complications.

And those with diabetes are more than twice as likely to be admitted to hospital than those without diabetes.

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What causes diabetes - different types

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is known as an autoimmune condition.

This is where the body’s immune system becomes confused, and attacks the body itself.

The immune system normally keeps us safe from viruses or bacteria that cause us harm.

In the case of diabetes, the immune system marks the pancreas as an ‘invader’ and attacks it.

This means that the pancreas is unable to make enough, or the right quality of insulin. Consequently, this leads to high blood sugar levels and diabetes. 

Type 1 diabetes is considered a chronic condition. There is no cure for type 1 diabetes however, the condition can be managed quite well with administered insulin and diet and lifestyle management.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is very similar to type 1 diabetes.

The pancreas has difficulty producing enough, or the right quality of insulin.

However, we also see in type 2 diabetes that the cells of the body don’t respond to insulin in the same way as before.

This is called insulin resistance.

This means the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to combat this resistance. The cells can’t take in enough of the right quality of insulin to function well.

Type 2 diabetes can be a lifelong condition.

However, it can also be controlled or even sometimes reversed through lifestyle management.

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Prediabetes

Prediabetes is characterised by higher than normal blood sugar levels.

These levels are not quite in the range to qualify as type 2 diabetes and can be the early signs of diabetes

These high blood sugar levels have the same cause as type 2 diabetes.

The pancreas cannot produce the right amount or quality of insulin to get glucose to the cells of the body.

If left untreated, pre-diabetes will get progressively worse and can lead to type 2 diabetes. 

The good news is that prediabetes is potentially reversible. It is an indicator that type 2 diabetes could be on the way as insulin resistance has developed.

However, it also means that taking action by losing weight, becoming more active, and changing diet could lower blood sugar levels back to the normal range.  

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a condition seen only in pregnant women.

Usually, this diabetes clears soon after the baby/babies are delivered. 

The placenta is established early in pregnancy to support and feed the growing foetus.

In order to do this, it produces a good deal of hormones throughout the gestation period. 

Late in pregnancy, some of these hormones can make the cells of the mother more resistant to insulin.

In the same way as type 1 and 2 diabetes, the pancreas can then struggle to make enough insulin to combat this hormone. 

If this happens, blood sugar levels rise as the glucose can’t get into the body’s cells. Gestational diabetes is then diagnosed. 

There are usually little to no symptoms of gestational diabetes. For this reason, blood sugar levels are monitored routinely in the later stages of pregnancy.

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What causes diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes doesn’t have an agreed definitive cause as yet so it;’s hard to answer ‘what causes diabetes?’

It is considered an autoimmune disease.

As such, we know that the immune system has gone haywire and is wrongly attacking its own body. However, we don’t yet know what the trigger is. 

Some theories are that type 1 diabetes could have some genetic influences.

The potential for type 1 diabetes may run in families through a certain gene. 

Environmental factors

Should we take environmental factors into consideration? Let’s explore this more.

What this means is that something in the environment acts as a trigger to this gene.

Viruses such as flu are thought to have the potential to act as a trigger for an autoimmune disease. 

Potentially, a virus could ‘wake-up’ the dormant gene for type 1 diabetes, causing it to develop into an autoimmune condition.

If the immune system attacks the pancreas, this results in type 1 diabetes.

Weight or being overweight isn’t considered to be an issue at the present time.

Lifestyle changes are unlikely to lower the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

Genetics are considered to be the primary cause, which are predetermined before birth. 

However, maintaining a healthy weight and having an active lifestyle will support your health should you develop the condition. 

There is no definitive way to know how to test for diabetes at home, but you can monitor blood sugar as an indicator.

Gestational diabetes

The placenta produces a good deal of hormones during pregnancy. 

In all late pregnancies these hormones reach a level that causes insulin resistance in the mother’s body. 

Not all women can then overcome this resistance by producing more insulin.

Those whose pancreases struggle to create this extra insulin develop gestational diabetes.

Gaining more than the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy is considered a factor in developing gestational diabetes. 

Women who begin their pregnancy overweight or obese may have already had insulin resistance prior to developing gestational diabetes.

These women are more at risk of developing pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes after the pregnancy is completed.

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Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes

Like type 1 diabetes, there is no definitive cause of type 2 diabetes at present.

Also like type 1 diabetes, it is also thought that genetic factors play a role. Environmental factors such as viruses might also act as a trigger to the condition. 

However, a strong link between lifestyle and developing type 2 diabetes is known.

There are some major lifestyle risk factors in developing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.

The primary risk factors are being overweight or obese, and living a sedentary lifestyle. 

Diabetes and obesity

Being overweight can cause insulin resistance on its own.

Overweight or obesity can cause low-level inflammation in the body which affects the cells and organs in many ways. 

Excess body fat and its placement is also a factor.

Excess fat around the waist in particular is linked to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. It is also linked to developing heart disease. 

Maintaining a healthy weight, lifestyle and diet is thought to be key in managing the risk of developing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. 

Eating a balanced diet full of plants and healthy fats can help to manage your weight. There is even diabetic chocolate

Limiting processed foods, sugar and simple carbohydrates will also help to regulate blood sugar. Check this list of food for diabetics

Being regularly active will also keep the blood sugar low. 

Not only that, being active will also increase how sensitive your cells are to insulin. This will slow down the development of insulin resistance. 

These are the answers to what causes diabetes.