Seventeen million Americans have diabetes and one million more are diagnosed each year. Even more alarming, researchers say these numbers are increasing dramatically.

Diabetes occurs when your body’s insulin response to rising blood glucose (sugar) is not working properly. Insulin is needed for sugar to move from the bloodstream into cells where it is used for energy. Poorly controlled diabetes increases the risk of heart disease , eye problems, kidney failure , and other complications. The most common types of diabetes are:

  • Type 1 – Occurs when the body is not able to produce insulin. This type of diabetes usually appears in children or young adults and requires daily insulin injections.
  • Type 2 – Occurs when the body does not use insulin properly. This type of diabetes usually appears in adulthood, although it is becoming more common in children. It may or may not require insulin injections.

Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90% to 95% of all diagnosed cases. Obesity and physical inactivity increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. As obesity is on the rise in the U.S.—nearly one-third of Americans are obese—the prevalence of diabetes is also increasing. What does this mean for the future?

A study in the October 8, 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association projected that, if the rate of diabetes continues to increase, one in three Americans born in 2000 will be diagnosed with diabetes by 2050. The study also found that women and Hispanics have the highest risk for developing diabetes.

About the Study

The researchers used data from the National Health Interview Surveys, an ongoing study of the health status and behaviors of Americans. The surveys included information from more than 350,000 respondents.

The researchers tracked the number of people who were diagnosed with diabetes between 1984 and 2000. They calculated the risk of developing diabetes at different ages. They also estimated the number of years a person can expect to live after being diagnosed with diabetes.

The Findings

This study projected that 33% of men and 39% of women born in 2000 will be diagnosed with diabetes during their lifetime.

Relatively few people were diagnosed by age 20, but the rate of diagnosis increased rapidly after age 40, then leveled off after age 80.

A diabetes diagnosis was associated with a significantly shorter lifespan. For example, if a 40-year-old man was diagnosed with diabetes, he could expect to lose about 12 years of his life, and a 40-year-old woman diagnosed with diabetes could expect to lose about 14 years.

The researchers found that women have a higher risk of developing diabetes throughout their lifetime. Also, Hispanics were much more likely to develop diabetes than non-Hispanics. For example, Hispanic men born in 2000 have a 45% chance of developing diabetes in their lifetime, while non-Hispanic white men have a 27% chance.

This study is limited because it only accounts for diagnosed diabetes. It is estimated that over one-third of diabetes cases are undiagnosed, so these estimates are almost certainly too conservative.

How Does This Affect You?

These numbers are startling, especially considering their underestimation of the true rate. They are also in stark contrast to trends in other major chronic diseases. While the incidence of diabetes has been dramatically increasing for at least the past 20 years, the incidence of heart disease and stroke have been decreasing and the incidence cancer has remained relatively steady over the same time period.

Are you at risk for developing diabetes? The National Institute of Diabetes an Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) says you are at increased risk of developing diabetes if:

  • You are overweight
  • You are over 45
  • You have a parent, brother, or sister with diabetes
  • Your family background is African American, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic American/Latino, or Pacific Islander
  • You have had gestational diabetes or given birth to a baby weighing nine pounds or more
  • Your blood pressure is 140/90 or more, or you have been told that you have high blood pressure
  • Your HDL cholesterol is 35 or lower, or your triglyceride level is 250 or higher
  • You are fairly inactive, or you exercise fewer than three times a week

There is good news. Although there is no known method of preventing type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes can be prevented. Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, eating a healthful diet, and exercising, can help prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes. Also, early detection and treatment of diabetes can help lower the risk of damage from its complications.