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What Is Diabetes?

The word diabetes is common enough. Nearly everyone has heard it and may know someone who has it. But how many know what it is? Diabetes is a medical condition identified by continual abnormally high levels of glucose in the blood.
It is a disease that results when either the body fails to produce adequate insulin, or the cells resist using the insulin produced. In the first case (too low an amount of insulin produced) diabetes is called Type 1. In the second instance, the condition is known as Type 2 diabetes. Type 1 constitutes about 7% of cases, with Type 2 responsible for 90% or more.

The disease affects about 7% of the population of the U.S., occurring more frequently among those age 60 or older. There are other types, such as gestational diabetes that sometimes afflicts pregnant women, and others. But they are much less common and, in some cases, temporary.

Typical symptoms for either type are abnormally frequent urination, produced by the body's attempt to clear excess glucose by elimination. As a result, unusual thirst is common, compensated for by drinking higher than average amounts. Type 1 has historically been known as juvenile onset diabetes, since it affected mostly younger people. Similarly, Type 2 was called adult-onset diabetes, since it was found mostly in older adults. In Type 1 diabetes, it's believed that one of the primary factors causing the disease is an autoimmune system malfunction that affects the pancreas. Type 2 may be caused or worsened by obesity and other factors. Both have genetic components as risk factors. But in either type, and regardless of the cause, the net effect is the same: an inability to clear glucose out of the bloodstream because of inadequate or faulty insulin production or use.

Insulin is the hormone chiefly responsible for regulating the level of glucose in the body. Many foods that contain carbohydrates are broken down by digestion and produce primarily glucose. That glucose is taken up by the body to supply the energy needed for cell repair, muscle movement and a thousand other functions. Insulin helps the glucose make its way into the cells. When insulin is produced in too low an amount, or the body's cells resist the intake of glucose by interfering with insulin's function, diabetes is the result.

Since the pancreas produces most of the body's insulin, when some condition causes it to malfunction, diabetes can result. The condition, whether Type 1 or Type 2, is usually chronic. But chronic doesn't mean that nothing can be done to minimize the effects. With proper diet and what are today relatively simple treatments, diabetes of either type is manageable. And the disease itself comes in a range of degrees. In some cases, the amount of insulin produced or used is only slightly under what's needed. In other cases, the pancreas produces almost none or the cells resist it strongly.

Since excess glucose left in the bloodstream can lead to a range of complications, diabetes can have several follow-on effects. But how severe those effects are depending on the severity of the insulin deprivation or resistance.