Let’s talk about one of the most common chronic illnesses in the world.
Although type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, there are a lot of misconceptions about what it actually does to the body and why it happens. We reached out to diabetes expert Dr. Dorothy Fink, of NYU Langone Endocrine and Diabetes Center, to dispel the most common diabetes myths.
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Before we talk about the myths, let’s define type 2 diabetes.
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), type 2 diabetes (T2D) is a chronic condition which causes blood glucose (sugar) levels to be higher than normal, also called “hyperglycemia.” It's also known as adult-onset or noninsulin-dependent diabetes.
“It's defined as having a hemoglobin A1C higher than 6.5 — which is a measure of how much sugar has coated your red blood cells over the last 2-3 months,” says Fink. When your A1C is high, that means your body isn't processing sugar correctly and too much glucose is in your blood. T2D is usually treated with lifestyle changes, oral medications, and insulin injection, but it varies by person.
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There are many different risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes.
No one thing causes diabetes, it's a multifaceted diagnosis. According to the Mayo Clinic, these are the known risk factors (although not all of these will apply to everyone with T2D):
- Weight: Being overweight or obese.
- Fat distribution: If your body stores fat primarily in your abdomen.
- Inactivity: Getting little or no physical activity.
- Family history: Having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes.
- Race: If you are Black, Hispanic, Native American, or Asian American.
- Age: Being 45 or older.
- Prediabetes: Having a high blood sugar but not high enough to be associated with diabetes, or an A1C between 5.7 and 6.4.
- Gestational diabetes: Having high blood sugar (diabetic hyperglycemia) during pregnancy.
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome: Being a woman with PCOS, which can cause irregular menstrual periods, excess hair growth, and obesity.
We'll talk more about some of these in a bit.
Type 2 diabetes is not a deficiency or absence of insulin.
Unlike type 1 diabetes, where the body does not produce the hormone insulin so it can't metabolize sugar, T2D occurs when your body does not use the insulin properly.
When you eat, food is converted into glucose for energy. The pancreas releases insulin to regulate the movement of glucose from our blood into cells so they can use it to fuel processes in our body. When you overload the body with sugar, says Fink, our pancreas freaks out and first tries to compensate by making extra insulin. Eventually, it can't keep up and stops making enough insulin to keep blood sugar down, which is called “insulin resistance.”
“Insulin is like a key that unlocks our cells so glucose can get inside, and people with T2D have the key but they just can't use it anymore,” says Fink. As a result, the sugar just stays in your blood — which can cause nerve, eye, kidney, and heart problems. If left untreated, it only gets worse over time.
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