Diabetes is a common metabolic disorder where chronically high blood sugar levels can cause serious complications if they aren’t controlled. In 90% of cases, the culprit is type 2 diabetes, which primarily is caused by lifestyle problems, such as obesity, an unbalanced high-glucose diet, and lack of physical exercise. Type 1 diabetes is much less common — accounting for less than 10% of all diabetes cases — and it’s triggered by an autoimmune mechanism. Type 1 diabetes typically starts during childhood, while the onset age of type 2 diabetes in the United States is around 45 years.
Diabetes is a serious public health problem, as an estimated 13% of Americans currently are diabetic, and this share keeps rising. Both types of diabetes are lifelong conditions that won’t go away. If left untreated, diabetes, in the long run, can seriously damage a person’s kidneys, cardiovascular system, eyes and nervous system. Ultimately, it can lead to death; some 300,000 Americans die from complications of diabetes every year.
Fortunately, diabetes can be managed well if it receives proper medical attention. Type 1 diabetes is controlled with regular injections of insulin, while type 2 can be managed with a healthy lifestyle and body weight. In some cases, type II diabetes can be managed without medication.
It’s estimated that currently there are about 8 million undiagnosed diabetes cases in the US population. According to the US CDC, roughly 2.5% of the US population aged 18 and older have diabetes and don’t know it yet. The number gets even larger when including people who are pre-diabetic (at risk or on the verge of developing full-blown diabetes). The CDC estimates that 90 million Americans aged 18 and older fall into that category. How many of these 90 million aren’t yet aware of their risk isn’t known, but is estimated to be over 50%.
At least 95% of those undiagnosed cases are type 2 diabetes. The reason for this lies in the slow development of type 2 diabetes symptoms. Whereas type 1 diabetes quickly develops noticeable symptoms — sometimes as fast as 3-4 weeks — type 2 diabetes can be nearly free of symptoms for many years.
Even if you have type 2 diabetes symptoms, for the first few years they may only be very subtle, so that you don’t notice them on your own. For example, common early symptoms are an increased frequency of urination and an accompanying increase in fluid consumption. Not only is this a very incremental process, but who really keeps track of how much they drink and urinate over the course of 6 or 12 months?
Even more advanced symptoms, like periodic bouts of blurred vision, dizziness, and a greater appetite, may not be something you pay much attention to or immediately associate with diabetes.
In most cases, diabetes is first diagnosed through a blood test. If you have an annual physical or otherwise need to do routine blood testing, it’s very likely that blood glucose levels are part of the blood test. In other words: your doctor will notice abnormally high blood sugar levels. If an elevated diabetes risk is suspected, follow-up testing will be required.
However, people who don’t regularly get a health examination or don’t have another medical reason for a blood test may not discover that they are pre-diabetic or diabetic for several months or years.
Since type 2 diabetes is eventually discovered as symptoms get more severe, it’s the early symptoms of diabetes you’ll need to watch out for if you are concerned that you might be at risk. As mentioned above, only a blood test will give you a definitive diagnosis. That said, here are the three most common early symptoms of diabetes (they apply both to type 1 and 2):
Eventually, if glucose metabolism breaks down completely, and more and more glucose ends up in the blood, a person can lose weight while eating more food than in the past. Unintentional weight loss thus can also be a sign of diabetes.
If you notice any of the above three symptoms, and if you are overweight and sedentary, you may be at risk of, or may already have diabetes. Getting tested is highly recommended.
Aside from the early symptoms discussed above, other Type 2 diabetes symptoms that may develop over time include:
If you are worried that you may have diabetes or are at risk of getting it, talk to your primary physician about getting tested.