In the United States, more than 16 million people are estimated to have diabetes. However, nearly 5.5 million of them don’t know it. Diabetes is a very treatable illness. Through careful monitoring of diet, medications and exercise, people living with diabetes find few limitations to what they can do.

But you can’t treat the illness if you don’t know that you have it. That’s why it’s especially important that you recognize the signs of diabetes, as well as the factors that make some people more likely to develop the disease. When the symptoms go unrecognized and diabetes is left untreated, it can lead to very serious complications, including heart disease, depression, blindness, kidney failure or other nerve and tissue damage.

What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease in which the body does not produce or has trouble producing and using insulin. Insulin is a hormone that converts carbohydrates and other foods into the energy needed to fuel the body’s cells. It also “unlocks” these cells of the liver, muscles and other tissues to allow the body to store the nutrients produced. When someone has diabetes, excess glucose, or sugar, builds up in the blood. The body loses the ability to use the glucose, and their buildup in the blood stream ultimately can cause tissue and organ damage.

There are three types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body cannot produce insulin. This form generally occurs in children or adolescents. Up to one million Americans have this form of diabetes.
  • Type 2 diabetes is the most familiar type, totaling as many as 90 percent of all cases. Insulin production is limited or the body’s tissues are resistant to its action. Most persons with Type 2 diabetes are diagnosed after the age of 45, and this risk increases significantly for those over the age of 55. However, modern fast food and “couch potato” lifestyles also have led to an increase in the number of younger people, and even children, who are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Other risk factors for Type 2 diabetes are obesity, high blood pressure and a family history of the disease. Members of certain ethnic groups also are more likely to develop this form of diabetes, including African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans.
  • Gestational diabetes is a temporary form of diabetes that sometimes occurs in women who are pregnant. Its symptoms frequently disappear after the birth of the child. However, women who develop this form of diabetes, in addition to women who give birth to babies weighing more than nine pounds, are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes later in life.