Steps Women Can Take to Reduce Their Diabetes Risk

Type 2 diabetes can be deadly for women, especially minority women. The prevalence is two to four times higher among women who are black, Hispanic, American Indian or Asian/Pacific Islander, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Over the last 30 years, death rates associated with heart disease have decreased 27 percent in women without diabetes, while women with type 2 diabetes have seen an alarming 23 percent increase, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).

Lifestyle changes

What behaviors do women need to change? Basically, the big two: eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle.

Being overweight is directly linked to developing type 2 diabetes, and as Americans' weights have soared in recent decades, so has the prevalence of the disease.

According to the CDC, nearly 12.6 million American women ages 20 and older have diabetes. Diabetes can have serious effects on both mother and child during pregnancy, and it can increase a woman's risk for hip and shoulder fractures, fertility problems and miscarriage.

Understanding diabetes

When someone has diabetes, the body can't produce, or efficiently use, the hormone insulin, which is needed to transport blood sugar from the blood into the body's cells to be used for energy. As a result, blood sugar levels remain dangerously high. Without usable sugar, the body lacks the energy it needs to function and stay healthy.

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in childhood through early adulthood. Type 2 is much more common. Up to 95 percent of women with diabetes have type 2 diabetes. It usually develops after age 45 but is increasingly being diagnosed in children and adolescents. It's far better to do what you can to prevent type 2 diabetes or to identify it as early as possible than wait until symptoms develop. Early detection and treatment can help avoid serious complications of diabetes, such as stroke, heart and kidney problems, blindness, or foot or leg amputation.

Steps women can take

You should find out if you are at risk. Men and women alike should be tested for type 2 diabetes by age 45 and receive additional tests every three years after receiving a normal result, according to the National Institutes of Health. Ask your health care provider how often you should be tested, depending on your personal risk factors.

You are at increased risk for diabetes if you:

  • Are age 45 or older

  • Have a family history of the disease

  • Are more than 20 percent overweight

  • Are in a high-risk ethnic group

  • Have a history of diabetes during pregnancy or have delivered a baby weighing more than 9 pounds

  • Have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or pre-diabetes -- a condition in which blood glucose levels are above normal but not yet in the diabetes range

The more risk factors you have, the higher your chance of developing diabetes.

If it turns out that you are at risk, be a team player. Work with your health care provider to develop lifestyle habits that will lower your risk.

Tell your obstetrician if you are at risk. In 2 to 5 percent of all pregnancies, the expectant mother develops gestational diabetes, a form of diabetes that can pose serious health risks to both the pregnant woman and her unborn child -- everything from high blood pressure and kidney infections to spontaneous abortion, premature delivery and birth defects. Most obstetricians/gynecologists screen women for diabetes during the 24th to 28th weeks of pregnancy.

At-risk mothers should communicate their risk factors. If expectant mothers work closely with their health care providers to keep their blood sugar close to normal, the risk for complications to themselves and their babies drops dramatically.

Nutrition and exercise

You should eat better and exercise more. These two changes alone may prevent diabetes or delay its onset and complications.

Learn to eat a well-balanced diet that is low in fat and simple sugars. Balance what you eat with the amount of physical activity you get each day. If you are overweight, lose weight. Even a modest weight loss can reduce your risk for diabetes. Ideally, you should maintain a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 25. If your BMI is 25 or higher, make an effort through diet and exercise to get it within that range.

Find things you enjoy doing that will help you be more physically active. Exercise not only helps to prevent or delay diabetes, it also helps you to control your weight and make you feel better.

Getting more exercise doesn't just mean going to the gym. Being more active in your everyday life is also important.  Walk to more places.  Take the steps rather than the elevator.  Choose some fun physical activities to do, such as bike riding, tennis, or walking.

Women who take up these healthful habits will serve as good role models for their children. Children are also at increased risk for type 2 diabetes due to higher rates of overweight and obese children.

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