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What Is Type 2 Diabetes?

Help someone with type 2 diabetes understand its causes, complications, and management strategies.

By , Caring.com senior editor
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Dictionary Series - Health: diabetes

Quick summary

Learning to deal with a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes can be tough. There's a lot to manage: blood sugar, diet, exercise, medications, complications, mental health, caregiving, and support. But while this is a serious, chronic disorder, there's plenty you and the person with diabetes can do to keep his diabetes under control and prevent or delay complications so he can live a relatively healthy, happy, and active life. Your first step: Get a good handle on this complex condition.

Causes, risk factors, and treatment of type 2 diabetes

What is type 2 diabetes? There are two main kinds of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. People with type 1 diabetes have a specific genetic makeup that causes their bodies to attack some of their own cells, which makes it an autoimmune disease. They usually develop severe symptoms over a short time and require regular insulin injections or infusions through a pump. This disorder is generally diagnosed in childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood; hence its former names, juvenile-onset diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.

Type 2 diabetes accounts for nearly 95 percent of all diabetes cases and is often, but not always, diagnosed in people over the age of 40; hence its former moniker, adult-onset diabetes. (It used to be known as noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus as well, but this term is also considered outdated.)

Type 2 diabetes strikes when a person's body doesn't produce and/or or loses the ability to properly use insulin. The result is too much sugar in the blood. Insulin (a hormone) is like a key that unlocks the door to cells, so that glucose -- a simple sugar and the primary energy source that fuels the body -- can enter. Without insulin, cells starve and blood glucose shoots dangerously above normal levels, which typically hover between 80 and 110 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL).

The exact underlying causes of diabetes remain a mystery, though the question is the subject of extensive scientific study. What researchers do know is that both genetics (family history) and environment (such as excess weight and inactivity) appear to play significant roles.

Risk factors of type 2 diabetes. The typical profile for a person with type 2 diabetes looks like this: someone age 45 or older who's overweight and sedentary, with a family history of the disease.

Type 2 diabetes occurs more frequently in certain ethnic groups, including African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. People with medical conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease are also at greater risk for diabetes.

Warning signs include unusual thirst, appetite, or fatigue, frequent urination or infections, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet, and eye or vision problems. Repeated skin infections or cuts and wounds that don't heal well can also be clues to diabetes.

But many people with diabetes have no symptoms of the disease at all and often go many months or even years before they're diagnosed. That's because the symptoms may sneak up and develop slowly.

Diagnosis and treatment of type 2 diabetes. There are two laboratory blood tests to diagnosis diabetes. One is called a fasting plasma glucose test and requires a blood sample after an overnight fast (no eating or drinking for eight hours). If the person has symptoms and a fasting blood sugar reading above 126 mg/dL, diabetes is diagnosed. In another test, known as the oral glucose tolerance test, after an overnight fast a blood sample is taken immediately before and two hours after he drinks a sugary beverage. In this test, if his fasting blood sugar reading is above 126 mg/dL and/or his two-hour test result is above 200 mg/dL, the diagnosis is diabetes.

There's no silver bullet to make type 2 diabetes go away. This is, unfortunately, a long-term, progressive disease without a cure. In the early stages of the disorder, the patient may be able to put a damper on its development by controlling blood sugar levels through lifestyle changes (namely, diet, exercise, and weight loss), if that's necessary. As the disorder progresses, he may need to take medications to lower his blood sugar, and he may eventually need insulin injections as well.