What Causes Diabetes?

Diabetes Learn

Diabetes Hands Holding Letters
Diabetes is a condition that impacts how your body produces insulin and regulates blood sugar levels.

Type 1 diabetes usually affects children and young adults, while type 2 usually starts later in life. It’s a very common disease.

According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2012 over 29 million Americans, or 9.3 percent of the population, had diabetes. These numbers are estimated to include about 8 million undiagnosed cases.

While the causes of diabetes are varied, below is an overview, outlining what we know pertaining to how and why both types occur.

Type 1 Diabetes

What happens, and to whom?

If you have type 1 diabetes, your pancreas stops producing insulin. Your body needs insulin to move glucose into your cells to get energy and to maintain a healthy sugar level in the bloodstream. Without it, serious, life-threatening complications quickly arise. Type 1 diabetes usually develops fairly suddenly and is most commonly diagnosed in children and young adults. About 10 percent of diabetes cases are type 1.

Why does it occur?

The causes of type 1 diabetes aren’t fully understood, but ultimately the condition is the result of an autoimmune response. It is believed that a genetics combined with environmental conditions might cause the disease. Basically, the body’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This leaves the body unable to produce insulin in sufficient quantities or even at all.

If a relative has type 1 diabetes, you’re more likely than average to develop it, indicating that there is a genetic component at work. But scientists suspect there is more involved than genetics; it can be triggered by a viral infection. In response to the virus, your immune system can actually kill the beta cells that make insulin in the pancreas . This process is thought to happen over several years, but once all the beta cells are destroyed, the body cannot produce enough insulin. There are no known steps you can take to avoid type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 Diabetes

What happens, and to whom?

Type 2 diabetes is far more common and makes up about 90%-95% of the diabetes population, according to the American Diabetes Association. It’s usually seen in adults, but a growing number of cases are being diagnosed in children and teens.

Unlike people with type 1 diabetes, your body still produces insulin if you have type 2. However, your pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin to meet your body’s needs, or your body is resistant to the insulin. As a result, glucose can’t get to your cells and instead goes into the bloodstream.

Why does it occur?

As with type 1 diabetes, genetics can play a role. If you have a relative with type 2 diabetes, you are at increased risk of developing it as well. Lifestyle factors such as excess weight and lack of physical activity are thought to be contributing factors. Increased levels of fat, especially around your waist, make it harder for your body to use insulin. Unlike type 1 diabetes, a healthy diet and active lifestyle with plenty of exercise can reduce the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.

Your risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases as you age. Experts don’t fully understand why, but they think this may be due to lack of activity. An estimated 26% of Americans age 65 and older have diabetes.

In the future

Type 1 and type 2 diabetes have a great impact on the health of many people, both domestically and worldwide. Researchers are working to develop more information about the exact causes of these conditions so they can more effectively treat and prevent diabetes.

Want to know more? Find helpful information and tips by visiting our “Lifestyle” section.