Risk factors for diabetes: Type 1, type 2, and gestational

This article is about risk factors for diabetes mellitus. Usually just called diabetes, this is a disease that occurs when the body does not make or use insulin in the way it should.

Diabetes results in a person having too much of a type of sugar, called glucose, in their blood and not enough in their cells. At least 1 in 4 people with diabetes does not know that they have the disease.

Knowing risk factors for diabetes is very important for preventing the damage it can cause. If a person knows what these factors are, they can see a doctor early to find out if they have, or are at risk of, diabetes.

There are three main kinds of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes. Each of these is briefly described below, along with their important risk factors.

Type 1 diabetes

Mother and daughter diabetes
The chance of developing type 1 diabetes is increased if a parent or sibling also has diabetes.

In type 1 diabetes, the body makes no or very little insulin. It affects around 5 percent of those with diabetes. It is treated with either insulin injections or an insulin pump, along with diet.

The main risk factors for type 1 diabetes include:

  • Family history. Having a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes increases the chances of a person having the same type. If both parents have type 1, the risk is even higher.
  • Age. Type 1 diabetes usually affects younger people. Ages 4 to 7 and ages 10 to 14 are the most common. Type 1 diabetes may occur at other ages, although it does so less often.
  • Genetics. Having certain genes may increase the risk of type 1 diabetes. Your doctor can check for these genes.
  • Where a person lives. Studies have found more type 1 diabetes the further away from the equator a person lives.

There may be other risk factors for type 1 diabetes. Researchers are currently investigating these.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is the most common kind of diabetes.

The body can still make some insulin, but is not able to use it the way it should. This leads to a buildup of sugar in the blood, which results in damage to the body.

Unlike type 1, it is often treated with medicines taken by mouth. However, insulin injections may still be necessary if type 2 diabetes is uncontrolled.

Type 2 diabetes has two kinds of risk factors. One kind of risk factor cannot be avoided. The other kind of risk factor, however, can be avoided.

Unavoidable risk factors

  • family history
  • having a baby weighing more than 9 pounds
  • race
  • age
  • dark, thick, velvety skin appearing around the neck or armpits
  • history of gestational diabetes

People who are African-American, Asian-American, Latino-Hispanic-American, Native American, or Pacific Islander all have a greater chance of developing type 2 diabetes than other groups.

Type 2 diabetes tends to occur in people age 45 years or older. This type of diabetes is occurring in younger people more and more, however.

Risk factors that can be avoided or treated

obese lady
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes that can be avoided include getting no exercise and being overweight or obese.
  • obesity or being overweight, especially around the waist
  • getting little or no exercise
  • high blood pressure
  • heart or blood vessel disease and stroke
  • low levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL)
  • high levels of fats, called trigycerides
  • certain mental health conditions
  • polycystic ovary syndrome
  • smoking
  • stress
  • too much or too little sleep

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is diabetes during pregnancy. Most women who are affected have not had diabetes before, and it goes away after the baby is born.

However, once a woman has had gestational diabetes, the chances are that it will return in future pregnancies.

Risk factors for gestational diabetes are much the same as other kinds of diabetes. These include:

  • being over 25 years of age
  • family or personal history of diabetes
  • prediabetes, which is high blood glucose without diabetes
  • unexplained stillbirth in the past
  • being overweight or obese
  • unhealthful eating
  • race

Risk factor management

There is no cure for diabetes. However you can reverse diabetes, or see it go into remission. The remission stage is defined by a return to normal blood glucose levels for at least 1 year without medication.

Doctor in discussion with patient
For people over 40 who may be at risk of diabetes, a healthcare professional should be consulted on a regular basis.

Early diagnosis and proper treatment can help prevent or delay problems. Knowing what the risk factors are can help people to identify and manage diabetes before it causes problems.

Some risk factors cannot be helped. Nevertheless, managing ones that can be helped, such as high blood pressure, weight, and diet, can go a long way to keeping diabetes under control.

Regular checkups are also important. For example, people over age 40 who have no risk factors for diabetes should see their doctor at least every 3 years. People over age 40 who also have one or more risk factors should see a doctor more often.

If a person already has type 2 diabetes, their parents, children, brothers and sisters are also at risk. If they haven’t already done so, these family members should be urged to see a doctor about their own chance of developing diabetes.

Just looking at one risk factor can sometimes make it hard to tell if a person is truly at risk of diabetes. Several websites have formulas for type 2 diabetes that can help people work out their overall risk.

A useful example of a risk calculator is the Diabetes Risk Test, which can be found on the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website.

This test takes seven risk factors into account, including weight and height, to work out a body mass index (BMI) score.

BMI is an important aspect of diabetes. When people try to work this score out on their own, it usually needs a number table for accuracy.


Diabetes is one of the most common health problems in the world. If left untreated, it can do great damage. Sooner or later, it may lead to blindness, kidney failure, stroke, heart failure, loss of a limb, and early death.

The sooner a person finds out if they have diabetes, the sooner steps can be taken to prevent or delay problems.

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