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Type 1 vs. Type 2 diabetes: What’s the difference?

Your guide to diabetes and how to prevent/overcome the disease
type 1 vs type 2 diabetes difference

Diabetes, a medical condition that results in high blood glucose (sugar) levels, is one of the most prevalent diseases in the United States—more than 10 percent of the population suffer from the condition. In 2012, 29.1 million people had diabetes, however, the disease goes undiagnosed in an estimated 8.1 million people and is one of the top concerns for public health professionals.

Claudia Perkins, R.D., a health educator at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Coastal Bend Health Education Center, deconstructs the differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and how you can improve your overall health while living with the disease.

What causes diabetes?

When you eat, your food is turned into glucose, and to effectively utilize glucose, the body must first absorb it. After a meal, the pancreas releases insulin which allows cells in your muscles, fat and liver to absorb glucose circulating in the bloodstream. Diabetes is caused when complications with insulin and its release arise.

An estimated five to 10 percent of people with diabetes are diagnosed with type 1—the type which renders them unable to produce insulin. Because of this, type 1 patients are dependent on an outside source of the hormone. In many cases, the body’s own immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that release insulin; which are essential for the body to absorb glucose and produce energy.

Patients diagnosed with type 2 diabetes can produce insulin, however, their bodies are unable to process it effectively. “People with type 2 diabetes can become insulin dependent like someone with type 1,” Perkins said. “But, since they were not insulin dependent at the time of diagnosis, their diabetes is type 2.”

People with type 1 diabetes need to check their blood sugar levels at least four times per day and administer insulin regularly, whether by injection or pump. Perkins recommends checking blood sugar before mealtimes, eating snacks, exercising and before bed, or anytime they suspect low blood sugar—identified by hunger, blurred vision, rapid heartbeat, fatigue, shaking, sweating or mood changes.

Additionally, people with type 2 diabetes may also have to check their blood sugar—normally at the request of their health care provider or if they are taking insulin.

What does diabetes do to the body?

Diabetes increases the risk of various cardiovascular problems, including heart attack and coronary artery disease. Excess sugar in the bloodstream can also injure the walls of the tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in the body. This may lead to nerve damage in your hands and feet (a condition called neuropathy), which, if left untreated, can result in amputation. Diabetes can also lead to kidney damage or eye damage, potentially leading to blindness, so it is important that the condition is managed properly.

Are the symptoms different?

Most people with diabetes of either type experience the same symptoms of high blood sugar (hyperglycemia): high levels of sugar in the urine, frequent urination, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and increased thirst. But, those with type 1 diabetes can also have episodes of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). People with type 2 diabetes typically won’t see these episodes unless they are taking insulin or certain diabetes medications.

To determine which type of diabetes is present, a health care provider may order blood tests or an auto-antibody test (which looks for the antibodies that attack pancreatic beta cells). However, if the condition is well controlled, the symptoms may be minimal in both instances.

When does diabetes start?

Children or young adults are usually diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (since it manifests as an auto-immune disorder), whereas type 2 is typically discovered in adulthood. However, type 2 diabetes in children is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese—upping their chances of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Worth noting: As the age and weight of the population increases, so does the prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Nearly 27 percent of older adults have diabetes, compared with about 14 percent of individuals between the ages of 45 and 64.

Is diabetes preventable?

When public health professionals talk about “risk” for diabetes, they typically mean type 2. Type 2 is much more common—90 percent of all cases fall into this category, possibly because of its link to obesity.

“Type 2 diabetes can be delayed, and even prevented, with healthier lifestyle choices like maintaining a healthy weight, eating sensibly and exercising regularly (at least 30 minutes a day),” Perkins said. “Since type 1 is an autoimmune disorder, as far as scientists can tell it isn’t caused by outside factors. If you’re a type 2 diabetic, exercising and being conscious about what you eat is key for overall health.”

A diabetes diagnosis isn’t the end

Still, even if you’re diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t mean you must place limitations on your life goals. “There have been Olympic medalists, NFL quarterbacks and world-famous musicians who have type 1 diabetes,” Perkins said. “As long as you follow the plan you set up with your diabetes educator or health care provider, there’s no reason to let your diabetes stop you from doing what you love.”

For more information, visit the American Diabetes Association website or call the Texas A&M Coastal Bend Health Education Center Diabetes Education Program at 1-866-524-1408.

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