Diabetes: What Is It and Who Gets It?

Diabetes is a significant problem in the developed world, and is especially prevalent among certain ethnic groups. Yet many people are not really sure what diabetes is, who gets it, and whether or not they are at risk.

The Basics of Diabetes

Diabetes means too much sugar in the blood. Its proper name is diabetes mellitus. The sugar in the diabetic person’s system also comes out in the urine, which diabetics produce a lot of – the ancient Egyptians noticed that the urine of certain people attracted sugar-loving insects like ants. The term “diabetes” comes from the Greek physician Arateus, and means “to siphon.” The term “mellitus” (meaning “honey sweet”) came about in the late 1600s.

Diabetics need to take steps to control their blood sugar levels, something that is normally done automatically within the body. How this is done and to what extent it is done depends on the type of diabetes that is present.

Types of Diabetes

There are two basic types of diabetes. Type I diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes, often occurs in childhood. In this type of diabetes, the pancreatic cells are destroyed, either by the body’s own immune system or some external damage to the pancreas, such as injury or surgery. Type I diabetics must inject insulin into their bodies since their pancreas no longer produces insulin.

Type II diabetes is far more common and tends to occur in adults. Generally, those with Type II diabetes have a functioning pancreas; it just doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the insulin it produces is “ignored” by the body (insulin resistance). Type II diabetes can sometimes be managed with diet and exercise, and insulin injections may or may not be necessary.

 Who Gets Diabetes?

Type I diabetes tends to run in families. Type II diabetes can also run in families, and may occur in at-risk individuals: those who are overweight, sedentary, over the age of 35, or had gestational diabetes in the past. You cannot “catch” diabetes as it is not caused by a pathogen.

 The prevalent opinion among medical professionals is that Type II diabetes can be prevented or minimized through a healthy lifestyle. The theory goes that too much white flour products, white sugar, corn syrup, and other refined sugars and grains cause the pancreas to become exhausted or the body to resist the insulin that is produced.


Two-thirds of

people with diabetes

live in

urban areas

and number will

increase to

three fourth by 2045


Type 1 diabetes

   Type 1 diabetes is caused by an autoimmune reaction where the body’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas gland. As a result, the body produces none to very little insulin a relative or absolute deficiency of insulin.

   The causes of this destructive process are not fully understood but a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental triggers such as viral infection, toxins or some dietary factors have been implicated.10 The disease can develop at any age but type 1 diabetes occurs most frequently in children and adolescents. People with type 1 diabetes need daily insulin injections in order to maintain a glucose level in the proper range and without insulin would not be able to survive.


Symptoms of type 1 diabetes

Abnormal thirst and dry mouth

Sudden weight loss

Frequent urination

Lack of energy, fatigue

Constant hunger

Blurred vision

bed wetting

Type 2 diabetes

   Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of  diabetes, accounting for around 90% of all cases of diabetes. In type 2 diabetes, hyperglycaemia is the result of an inadequate production of insulin and inability of the body to respond fully to insulin, defined as insulin resistance. During a state of insulin resistance, insulin is ineffective and therefore initially prompts an increase in insulin production to reduce rising glucose levels but over time a state of relative inadequate production of insulin can develop. Type 2 diabetes is most commonly seen in older adults, but it is increasingly seen in children, adolescents and younger adults due to rising levels of obesity, physical inactivity and poor diet.

   The symptoms of type 2 diabetes may be identical to those of type 1 diabetes including in particular, increased thirst, frequent urination, tiredness, slow-healing wounds, recurrent infections and tingling or numbness in hands and feet. However, the onset of type 2 diabetes is usually slow and its usual presentation without the acute metabolic disturbance seen in type 1 diabetes means that the true time of onset is difficult to determine.

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes

Excessive thirst and dry mouth


Recurrent fungal infections in the skin

Frequent and abundant urination

Slow healing wounds

Lack of energy, extreme tiredness

Blurred vision

Tingling or numbness in hands and feet

Diabetes: A global emergency

Number of people with diabetes worldwide and per region in 2017 and 2045 (20-79 years)


Diabetes complications

   A majority of people with diabetes are unaware of having diabetes complications. However, most complications can be detected in their early stages by screening programs.


    When not well managed, all types of diabetes can lead to complications in many parts of the body, resulting in frequent hospitalizations and early death. People with diabetes have an increased risk of developing a number of serious life-threatening health problems increasing medical care costs and lowering quality of life.


    Persistently high blood glucose levels cause generalized vascular damage affecting the heart, eyes, kidneys and nerves. Diabetes is one of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease (CVD), blindness, kidney failure and lower-limb amputation. In pregnancy, poorly controlled diabetes increases the risk of maternal and fetal complications. There are no detailed global estimates of diabetes-related complications, but where data are available – mainly from high-income countries – prevalence and incidence vary hugely between countries.

Healthcare Expenditure

Total healthcare expenditure by people with diabetes (20-79 years) - in billion US$

   In 2017, IDF estimates the total healthcare expenditure on diabetes will reach USD 727 billion (20-79 years), which represents an 8% increase compared to the 2015 estimate. When using the expanded age group of 18 to 99 years, the costs totalled USD 850 billion.


World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on physical activity for different age groups

Children and youth aged 5-17 years should do at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous – intensity physical activity daily.

Adults aged 18-64 years should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (brisk walking, jogging, gardening) spread throughout the week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.

Children and youth aged 5-17 years should do at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous – intensity physical activity daily.

Dr. Julian Whitaker, M.D. -

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IDF Diabetes Atlas
American Council on Science and Health (http://acsh.org)