Diabetes affects 29 million Americans — 13.4 million women and 15.5 million men. Yet, despite the fact that women are somewhat less likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, they are more likely to suffer from a number of serious diabetes-related health problems, including heart disease, complications of pregnancy, and depression.
Diabetes develops when there is a problem with the way the body processes insulin. Produced by the pancreas, insulin is a hormone that acts like a key to open cells, allowing sugar circulating in the blood to enter cells where it is converted into energy. Type 1 Diabetes, accounting for about 10 percent of cases, typically develops in childhood or adolescence. With Type 1, the pancreas no longer produces insulin and a patient needs regular insulin injections to stay healthy.
Type 2 Diabetes, which is the most common form of the disease, typically develops later in life when the body stops using insulin properly. It can be genetic, but is often brought on by a lack of exercise, an unhealthy diet, or obesity. Fortunately, however, Type 2 Diabetes is preventable and treatable with lifestyle changes.
“Diabetes is one of the chronic diseases if not taken care of appropriately can lead to serious complications that affect the quality of life,” says Dr. Myo Win, and internal medicine physician at Massena Memorial Hospital. “It can be controlled with medication and most importantly lifestyle changes. Patients need to be involved actively in their plan of care to have the best quality of life.”
According to Dr. Win, there are a number of risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes. Some are out of our control, including:
- being over age 45
- having a parent or sibling with Type 2 Diabetes
- ethnicity: African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Alaskan natives all face a risk double that of other Americans
- being diagnosed with poly-cystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
However, she said, there are a number of other risk factors that can be controlled or modified, including: being overweight; leading a sedentary lifestyle; poor eating habits; smoking; excess stress; and not sleeping enough or sleeping too much.
Excess Risk for Women With Diabetes
Female hormones may explain some of the excess risk faced by women with Type 2 Diabetes. The female hormones estrogen and progesterone increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin, facilitating its transport into cells.
When estrogen and progesterone levels drop — during menopause for example — insulin sensitivity may also be lowered. Fluctuations in hormone levels during the menstrual cycle can affect younger women, causing spikes in blood sugar levels. Women diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes or who have pre-diabetes need to pay special attention to their insulin levels when hormone levels are unstable.
Heart disease is the leading killer of women, especially in later years. Diabetes increases the risk for heart disease for both men and women, but women face even higher risks. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), compared to women who do not have diabetes, women with diabetes are twice as likely to suffer a second heart attack after a first one and four times as likely to suffer from heart failure.
Pregnancy can also bring risk to both mothers and their babies when the mother has diabetes. Risks include miscarriage, birth defects, and early delivery. Pre-pregnancy planning and working with your doctor to keep blood sugar levels under control during pregnancy can minimize these risks. Gestational diabetes can develop in women during pregnancy. Although it usually resolves after the baby is born, it’s important that gestational diabetes be carefully managed.
Depression is twice as common in women as in men, but women with diabetes face an even higher risk. A study published in 2010 in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that women who suffered from depression had an increased risk of developing diabetes. Other studies have shown that having both diabetes and depression doubles the risk of an earlier death.
While all of these risk factors may seem daunting, there are steps women can take to lower their risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes as well as to control, or even reverse, their Type 2 Diabetes if they are already diagnosed. It is important to focus on the following controllable risk factors.
Losing weight: Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes. Even modest amounts of weight loss can improve blood sugar levels. One study found that a weight loss of just 7 to 10 percent (14 to 20 pounds for someone weighing 200 pounds) cuts the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes by 50 percent.
Some patients who succeed in getting their weight within a healthy range find they no longer need medication to control their blood sugar. For some patients struggling with obesity, bariatric surgery has made it possible for them to lose weight and bring their blood sugar under control.
Getting regular exercise: Leading a sedentary lifestyle is one of the major risk factors for developing Type 2 Diabetes and is also tied to weight gain. You don’t need to be an athlete or join a fancy gym to get the exercise you need. Start by walking for half an hour a day. You can break it up into two 15 minute walks if it’s difficult to walk that far in the beginning. As your fitness improves, increase your walking speed and start adding minutes to your work out; aerobic exercise increases the effectiveness of your insulin, improves blood flow, and strengthens your heart.
Healthy eating: Avoid highly processed carbohydrates such as cakes, cookies, chips, sugary drinks, and trans fats and limit deli meats and red meat. Instead focus on a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, fish, whole grains, poultry, beans, nuts, and seeds. Olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, nuts, and avocados can all provide the healthy fats you need.
Type 2 Diabetes can sneak up on you, developing over a number of years to rob you of your health and well-being. Watching your weight, getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking will go a long way to protecting you from this common yet very preventable disease.
Dr. Win is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and is currently accepting new patients. She sees patients at the Louisville Family Health Center and Brasher Falls Family Health Center. Please call 315-769-4340 to make an appointment at the Louisville Clinic or 315-389-4575 to make an appointment at the Brasher Falls Clinic.