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Risk factors for diabetes

Some types of diabetes cannot be prevented, while with others, understanding the risk factors can help prevent the condition developing.

The charity Diabetes UK estimates that as many as a million people in the UK are unaware they have type 2 diabetes. Are you at risk?

Type 2 diabetes risk factors

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or can't use the insulin that's produced, a condition called insulin resistance. Although it typically starts in adulthood, type 2 diabetes can begin anytime in life. Because of the increase in obesity among children, type 2 diabetes is now found in teenagers. Diabetes UK says the first 4 cases in children were confirmed in 2002.

Here are the risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes:

  • Obesity or being overweight. Diabetes has long been linked to obesity and being overweight. Research at the Harvard School of Public Health in the US showed that the single best predictor of type 2 diabetes is being obese or overweight. Obesity and diabetes are both becoming more common in the UK. The most-used measure for obesity is BMI, which stands for body mass index. BMI is a ratio, and can be determined using standard tables of height and weight. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher defines obesity.
  • Impaired glucose tolerance or impaired fasting glucose. Prediabetes is a form of diabetes that's sometimes called impaired glucose tolerance. It can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. Prediabetes is a major risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Insulin resistance. Type 2 diabetes often starts with cells that are resistant to insulin. That means they are unable to respond to insulin which is needed to move glucose from the blood into cells. With insulin resistance, the pancreas has to work overly hard to produce enough insulin so cells can get the energy they need. This involves a complex process that eventually leads to type 2 diabetes.
  • Ethnic background. Diabetes occurs more often in black and Asian people.
  • High blood pressure. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a major risk factor for diabetes. High blood pressure is generally defined as 140/90 mm Hg or higher.
  • History of gestational diabetes. If you developed diabetes while you were pregnant, you've had what is called gestational diabetes. Having had gestational diabetes puts you at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
  • Sedentary lifestyle. Being inactive -- exercising fewer than three times a week -- makes you more likely to develop diabetes.
  • Family history. Having a family history of diabetes -- a parent or sibling who's been diagnosed with this condition -- increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome. Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are at higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Age. Some doctors advise anyone over 40 to be screened for diabetes. That's because increasing age puts you at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. It's important to remember, though, that people at any age can develop diabetes. If you're over 40 and overweight or if you have symptoms of diabetes, talk to your doctor about a simple screening test.
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