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Diabetes : Cause & Prevention

Diabetes is a serious, life-long disease. It cannot be cured, but careful control of blood sugar can prevent or delay the complications of this disease. A great deal of research is underway to find out exactly what causes diabetes and how to prevent it. Diabetes is a disease that prevents the body from properly converting foods into the energy needed for daily activity.

Understanding how diabetes develops starts with knowing what happens when the body digests food. When you eat, your body changes most of the food into a form of sugar called glucose. Glucose travels through the blood stream to "fuel," or feed your cells. It is the main source of fuel for your body. For glucose to get into cells, insulin must be present. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas, a large organ behind the stomach. If your body does not make enough insulin or if the insulin doesn't work the way it should, glucose can't get into your cells. It remains in your blood, while the cells are starved of energy. The level of glucose in your blood then gets too high, causing diabetes.

Over the years, high levels of glucose in the blood damage nerves and blood vessels. This can lead to complications such as heart disease and stroke, kidney disease, blindness, nerve damage, gum infections, and lower limb amputation. There are three main forms of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease occurs when the body's system for fighting infection -- the immune system -- turns against a part of the body. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas and destroys them. The pancreas then produces little or no insulin. At present, scientists do not know exactly what causes the body's immune system to attack the cells, but they believe that both genetic factors and environmental factors, such as viruses, are involved. Studies have begun to try to identify these factors and prevent type 1 diabetes in people at risk.

Type 2 diabetes -- the most common form -- is linked to obesity, high blood pressure, and high levels of bad cholesterol called triglycerides, and low levels of good cholesterol called high density lipoprotein or HDL. About 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight. Being overweight can keep your body from using insulin properly. When type 2 diabetes is diagnosed, the pancreas is usually producing some insulin, but not as much as needed. After several years, insulin production tends to decrease in people with type 2 diabetes. Being over 45 years of age and overweight or obese raises the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Other risk factors include:

  • Having a first-degree relative -- a parent, brother, or sister -- with diabetes.
  • Being African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian American or Pacific Islander, or Hispanic American/Latino. insulin.

Risk factors include:

  • Having gestational diabetes, or giving birth to at least one baby weighing more than 9 pounds.
  • Having blood pressure of 140/90 or higher, or having been told that you have high blood pressure.
  • Having abnormal cholesterol levels -- an HDL cholesterol level of 35 or lower, or a triglyceride level of 250 or higher.
  • Being inactive or exercising fewer than three times a week.

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