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Know Your Risk, Prevent Diabetes

by Leta Philp Alberta Health Services – Diabetes, Obesity & Nutrition Strategic Clinical Network™ | November 20 2020

November is Diabetes Awareness Month. You might think that you’re not at risk, but one in three Canadians live with diabetes or prediabetes. The good news is there are things you can do to reduce your risk or improve your overall health if you are living with diabetes or prediabetes.

Did you know?

It is estimated over one million Albertans live with diabetes or prediabetes and some people may be unaware. More than 350,000 Albertans are diagnosed with diabetes and require daily management to prevent health complications. In the past 10 years, both type 1 and 2 diabetes in children has increased around the world.

What is Diabetes?

  • Type 1 diabetes: an autoimmune disease where the pancreas makes very little to no insulin. On a basic level, autoimmune disease occurs when the body’s system for fighting infections turns against healthy cells. Insulin is a hormone, made in the pancreas, which helps our body control the amount of sugar in our blood. Those living with type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day to keep their blood sugar in their target range and includes about 10 per cent of all people living with diabetes.

  • Type 2 diabetes: a chronic, progressive disease in which your body cannot make enough insulin or does not properly use the insulin it makes. Type 2 diabetes accounts for about 90 per cent of those living with diabetes.

  • Gestational diabetes: this type of diabetes occurs during the second or third trimester of pregnancy. Typically, gestational diabetes goes away after giving birth. During pregnancy, the woman’s body cannot produce enough insulin to handle the effects of a growing baby and changing hormone levels. If your body cannot produce enough insulin, the amount of sugar in your blood will rise. These women and children are at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

  • Prediabetes: this is where blood sugar levels are higher than normal but are not high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Prediabetes is a warning that you may develop type 2 diabetes. However, you can delay or prevent type 2 diabetes from developing by making healthy behavior changes.

Know your risk

Currently, there is no way to prevent type 1 diabetes as it’s an autoimmune disorder. Although research is continuing to assess risk factors. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes.

It’s important to highlight that there are risk factors that you can change, as well as those you can’t change, but being aware of them can help you take smart steps to lower your risk.

Things you can’t change but may put you at higher risk of type 2 diabetes:

  • Age: being over 40+
  • Ethnicity: particularly those from Indigenous, African, Arab, Asian, Hispanic, or South Asian backgrounds
  • Family history: a parent or sibling living with diabetes
  • Health history (a previous medical diagnosis even if well managed with lifestyle and medication):
    • High blood pressure
    • High blood cholesterol
    • Increased weight especially around the tummy
    • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
    • Psychiatric disorders (e.g., schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder)
    • Obstructive sleep apnea
    • Prediabetes or gestational diabetes
    • Some medications (e.g., steroid medications)

Things you can change:

  • Introducing or sticking with healthy lifestyle choices, such as:
    • Physical activity
    • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
    • Managing stress and getting enough sleep

How do I know my risk?

Diabetes Canada encourages you to ‘Know Your Risk’ and have developed a simple online questionnaire, which is also available in many different languages. Anyone with a higher score should see their family doctor to discuss next steps. Experts recommend an annual check for elevated blood sugar after age 40, when the risk of developing type 2 diabetes begins to rise.

Know the signs

Most people with type 2 diabetes do not have any symptoms so that’s why it’s important to get screened regularly. When blood sugars get too high, you may find that you need to pass urine (pee) more often and you may be more thirsty or hungrier than in the past.

Other possible signs include weight loss, a dry mouth, urinary tract infections, blurry vision and numbness or tingling in fingers and toes. Talk to your family doctor if you experience any of these signs or if you are worried you are at-risk of developing diabetes.

Live healthy

To reduce your risk, consider the following:

  • Healthy eating habits. Enjoy regularly spaced, balanced meals with lots of vegetables, protein, fibre, and healthy fats. Check out Healthy Eating Starts Here for tips and resources.
  • Be active. Exercise does great things to lower blood sugar. Experts recommend 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week, coupled with resistance exercise two to three times a week. If you are new to activity, start with walking 10 minutes a day.
  • Seek support. If you are at risk for developing diabetes or prediabetes, supports are available. Talk with your family doctor about being referred to programs such as:

If you are unsure of where to start, call Health Link at 811 to speak with a registered nurse.

The more you know about diabetes, the better you can manage your health and well-being—and it’s never too late to start.

Please share with your school teams and let me know, by posting a comment below, if there are topics related to diabetes or diabetes management that you’d like to see in future blogs.

Diabetes Canada: What is diabetes?
Diabetes Canada: National and provincial backgrounders (2020)

Leta Philp

Leta is a registered nurse and clinical practice lead with Alberta Health Services’ Diabetes, Obesity & Nutrition Strategic Clinical Network™—not to mention a Calgary-based ‘cake boss’ who loves to surprise family and friends with her decadent creations (um, can you pass us a slice?!). An educator extraordinaire, Leta’s passionate about supporting adults and kids living with diabetes.