Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can be genetic.
However, there are also other risk factors that will determine whether you actually develop type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
Here’s what you should know about your risk for diabetes and what to do if it runs in your family.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 10% of Americans suffer from diabetes. Type 2 diabetes makes up 90% to 95% of these cases, while type 1 diabetes is much less common. However, both are heavily influenced by genetics.
Here is what you need to know about the causes and risk factors for diabetes, and what to do if you have a family history of the disease.
Is diabetes genetic?
Scientists know that both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can have genetic components. What they have yet to discover is the series of genes responsible for increasing a person’s risk, says Emily Nosova, MD, an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai Diabetes Center.
Genetics is the main risk factor for type 1 diabetes, though scientists think that exposure to viruses and other underlying health conditions might also play a role.
As with type 1 diabetes, family history is a strong predictor for type 2 diabetes, but lifestyle factors — such as physical exercise, diet, and weight — may have a larger impact on determining whether or not you actually develop the condition.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that is typically diagnosed at a young age, and is not related to any lifestyle factors. People with type 1 have little to no insulin in their bodies because their immune system attacks healthy insulin-producing cells in their pancreas, called beta cells.
While there is little understanding of what causes type 1 diabetes, those with a family history of type 1 are more likely to develop it, Nosova says. For example, according to TrialNet, an organization that researches type 1 diabetes, if you have a parent, brother, or sister with type 1 diabetes, you have a 1 in 20 chance of getting it. That is a 15 times higher risk when compared to people with no family history of the disease.
Scientists aren’t completely sure what else causes type 1 diabetes. Many think that exposure to other viruses, particularly enteroviruses — which cause the common cold — might trigger type 1 diabetes. Geography is another potential risk factor, since people who live in cooler climates tend to have higher rates for developing type 1 diabetes.
Other autoimmune diseases — like thyroid disorders, celiac disease, and Addison’s disease — may increase risk for type 1 diabetes. In particular, thyroid diseases are prevalent among type 1 diabetics, affecting about 15% to 20%. However, these can appear before or after a diabetes diagnosis, so experts aren’t exactly sure whether the effect is causation or simply correlation.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a condition that occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin or doesn’t produce enough of it. Type 2 usually appears later in life and it is much more common than Type 1.
Type 2 also has a strong genetic component. For example, if a parent develops type 2 diabetes before the age of 50, their child has a 1 in 7 chance of getting it. The risk reduces to 1 in 13 if the parent’s diagnosis happens after the age of 50.
Lifestyle factors related to health are also closely linked to type 2 diabetes, Nosova says. Being overweight or obese, living a sedentary lifestyle, and having a disproportionate amount of excess fat around the abdomen all increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
However, according to the American Diabetes Association, family risk intersects with these environmental factors, since children learn many of their habits from their parents, including what they eat and how much they exercise. If a parent is overweight due to lifestyle choices, a child is at risk of also being overweight by making the same lifestyle choices.
In addition, statistics compiled by the CDC show that certain racial and ethnic groups are at higher risk for diabetes:
American Indians/Alaska Native (14.7%)
non-Hispanic Black (11.7%)
non-Hispanic Asian (9.2%)
non-Hispanic white (7.5%)
According to a study published in Current Diabetes Reports in 2013, there are many factors that contribute to this risk. While some are impacted by genetics, such as obesity levels, many of them are socioeconomic — as non-white communities in America are less likely to have affordable access to medical and quality food options nearby.
What to do if you’re at genetic risk for diabetes
While Nosova says there is no routine genetic screening process for type 1 or 2 diabetes, there are a few steps you can take if you know that diabetes runs in your family.
If you have a family history of Type 1, Nosova says you should alert your doctor, closely monitor your blood sugar levels, and ensure you are being screened for the disease regularly. There’s no proven way to prevent type 1 diabetes, though you can ask your doctor or contact TrialNet to find clinical research trials in you area, if you’re interested in trying prevention strategies.
Type 2, on the other hand, can usually be prevented with certain lifestyle changes. If you have a family member with Type 2 diabetes, Nosova says the best way to lower your risk is by maintaining a healthy diet, staying active, and trying to lose weight. It’s important to talk with your doctor, who can check your blood sugar levels and work with you to create a treatment plan.
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