Diabetes information

Diabetes affects people from all walks of life - from the very young to the very old - and is now considered an epidemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

What is diabetes?

Diabetes occurs when the sugar (glucose) level in the blood is too high.  This happens when the body is not burning up carbohydrates properly due to a defect in the pancreas, the gland that produces insulin.  Insulin is the hormone which keeps blood sugar levels within the normal healthy range.  Diabetes may be present either when no insulin is made or when insulin is made but not working properly.

There are two types of diabetes - type 1, formerly known as insulin-dependent diabetes, which usually occurs before the age of 35.  A person with type 1 diabetes makes no insulin and therefore needs to inject insulin to regulate blood sugar levels and remain healthy.  Type 2 diabetes (non-insulin dependent diabetes) more commonly occurs in adults after the age of 40 and is extremely common in old age.  In this case, the person with diabetes makes some insulin.  Usually associated with being overweight, this condition responds well to weight loss through dietary regulation.  Sometimes weight loss is not enough and tablets are required to help the person's own insulin to work or additional insulin may be required.  This type of diabetes is also known as adult-onset or maturity-onset diabetes.

With an average of seven years between onset and diagnosis, the earlier the condition is detected the easier it will be to manage.  Early detection gives the ability to protect against heart attack, stroke and vision loss which is due to high blood sugar levels over years.

Symptoms of diabetes

Symptoms of diabetes vary in intensity but may include:

  • Lack of energy
  • Tiredness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Frequent passing of urine
  • Weight loss - in the region of 7-14 pounds
  • Blurring of vision
  • Recurrent infection

Diabetes is detected by a simple blood test that detects how much glucose is in the blood.

The onset of type 2 diabetes is gradual and therefore hard to detect.   Some people have few early symptoms and are only diagnosed several years (3 - 12 years) after the onset of the condition and in half of these cases various complications are already present.

Risk factors of Type 2 Diabetes

Some people are more at risk of developing diabetes than others.  The known risk factors include:

  • A family history of diabetes
  • Being overweight (80% of people with diabetes are overweight)
  • Age (the likelihood of developing diabetes increases with age)
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Having had diabetes during pregnancy or having had a large baby

In Ireland, it is estimated that there are 200,000 people with diabetes with many unaware. The majority of these people will only be diagnosed through an acute medical event of the complications of long term untreated hyperglycaemia. A further 200,000 people have impaired glucose tolerance or "pre-diabetes" of which 40% will develop diabetes in the next 5 years if lifestyle changes are not made.