Diabetes Risk Factors

As many as half of all people over 65 in the United States have prediabetes, and many people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are unaware of their condition.

Some diabetes risk factors can be controlled by the lifestyle choices you make. These are called modifiable risk factors. Those that you can’t change are non-modifiable risk factors.

Non-modifiable risk factors for Type 2 diabetes

Risk factors that increase your risk for developing prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes that can’t be changed are:

  • Family history: Some factors that increase the risk of diabetes are inherited from our parents or close biological relatives. If you have a blood relative with diabetes, your risk for developing it is significantly increased. Share your family health history with your doctor to find out what it may mean for you.
  • Race or ethnic background: If you’re of African-American, Asian-American, Latino/Hispanic-American, Native American or of Pacific-Islander descent, you have a greater chance of developing diabetes.
  • Age: The older you are, the higher your risk for prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes generally occurs in middle-aged adults, most frequently after age 40. But health care professionals are diagnosing more and more children and adolescents with Type 2 diabetes.
  • Gestational diabetes: If you developed diabetes during pregnancy, you are at increased risk of developing diabetes again later in life.

Modifiable risk factors for Type 2 diabetes

You can — and should — do something about your modifiable risk factors. You can reduce your risk for diabetes or delay its development by making healthy changes: 

  • Weight: Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing diabetes. Losing 5% to 10% of your body weight—in addition to getting regular physical activity—can significantly reduce your risk of developing diabetes. Your risk decreases even more as you lose more weight. For most people, a body mass index calculator will provide a good target weight for your height. Learn how to manage your weight.
  • Physical activity: Physical inactivity is a key modifiable risk factor for prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes. Regular physical activity helps lower insulin resistance. This means your body can use its own insulin more effectively. Even a brisk 30-minute walk at least five days a week has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease. For your overall cardiovascular health, aim for:
    • At least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity;
    • Or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity (or a combination of the two);
    • And muscle-strengthening at least two days per week.
  • Blood pressure: In addition to causing damage to the cardiovascular system, untreated high blood pressure has been linked to complications from diabetes. People with diabetes and HBP should maintain a blood pressure of less than 130/80 mm Hg. Normal blood pressure is below 120/80 mm Hg. Learn more about high blood pressure and how to control it.
  • Cholesterol (lipid) levels: Diabetes is associated with atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and blood vessel disease. Low HDL “good” cholesterol and/or high triglycerides can increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Following a healthy eating plan, getting regular physical activity and reaching and maintaining a healthy weight can help improve abnormal lipid levels. Sometimes, medications are also needed.
  • Smoking: If you smoke, there are a number of tools, medications and online resources that you can use to help you quit. Talk to your health care team about the best options for you.
  • Diet: It’s important to eat healthy foods in the right amounts. Diet is one of the most important modifiable risk factors for prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends an eating plan that includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, skinless poultry, fish, legumes, non-tropical vegetable oils and unsalted nuts and seeds. A healthy diet should also replace saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, avoid trans fats, reduce cholesterol and sodium (salt) and limit red and processed meats, refined carbohydrates and sweetened beverages.
  • Alcohol: Heavy use of alcohol can cause inflammation in the pancreas and limit its ability to produce enough insulin. Alcohol can cause liver damage and adds more sugar and starch to your diet that must either be used or stored as fat. Moderate your alcohol intake. That means no more than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men.
  • Stress and well-being: Everyone feels stress, but people react differently. Managing the stress in our lives is an important part of healthy living, not only for diabetes but for heart disease and many other conditions. Find ways to address the causes of your stress and make time for things you enjoy.
  • Sleep: Adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Sleep benefits your whole body, including your heart and brain. It improves mood, memory and reasoning. Research also has shown that too little or too much sleep is linked to a high A1C in people with Type 2 diabetes. If you have insomnia (trouble going to sleep or waking up too soon) or sleep apnea (problems breathing while asleep), work with your health care team to diagnose and treat them.

By following our healthy living tips, you can take control of your modifiable risk factors. Taking proactive steps now can prevent or delay the development of diabetes and improve your quality of life.

Find more tools and resources for managing diabetes and reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease at KnowDiabetesbyHeart.org.

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