Recognizing the early signs of diabetes

More than 37 million Americans have diabetes, and type 2 diabetes most often develops in people over age 45, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1

And while getting older is a major risk factor for diabetes, it’s “not something that’s a part of the normal aging process. There are ways we can help prevent it,” says Natasha Diaz, M.D., a family medicine specialist and founder of Roots Health Direct Primary Care in Forest Park, Illinois.

As with many other illnesses, the sooner you learn you have type 2 diabetes, the sooner you can start treating it. Unfortunately, many people miss the early warning signs of diabetes, which can appear slowly and often start in your mid-40s.1

What is diabetes?

When you eat, your body breaks down food into glucose. This causes your glucose levels to rise and triggers your pancreas to release insulin. When you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make enough insulin or your cells can’t use it properly. That leaves too much sugar in your bloodstream.

Some people who have elevated blood sugar levels don’t yet have diabetes. Those people may have prediabetes, a condition in which your blood sugar is elevated but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes.  Often, prediabetes can be reversed by lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise and possibly medication.2

Prediabetes usually doesn’t have any symptoms, so it’s important to get regular screenings. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends screening for adults 18 years and older who are overweight and have other risk factors. Additionally, the ADA recommends all adults should be screened for prediabetes and diabetes beginning at age 35 years. A simple blood test is enough to let you know if you have prediabetes or diabetes. If tests are normal, screening should be repeated at a minimum of 3-year intervals.3

“Prediabetes is a warning light you’re going to develop diabetes if you don’t do something,” Dr. Diaz says.

Spotting the signs of diabetes

Diabetes symptoms can develop slowly and take time to become noticeable. Some of the most common signs of diabetes include:4

More frequent urination. When your blood sugar levels go up, the kidneys have to work harder to remove the extra blood sugar, causing you to urinate more often.

Feeling thirstier than usual. As your kidneys work harder to flush out extra blood sugar, this process can pull fluid from your tissues too, making you feel thirstier.

Blurred vision. When your blood sugar levels are high, the flushing process may pull fluid from the tissues in the lenses of your eyes. This can impact your vision.

Fatigue. Your cells have a hard time getting the energy they need from blood sugar, which can make you feel tired or weak. “Cells need glucose to function; it’s their energy source,” Dr. Diaz says.

Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet. High blood sugar levels can damage the nerves in your hands, feet, legs and arms. That damage can first show up as a “pins and needles” tingling in your feet or numbness in your hands or feet.

Slow-healing wounds or sores. High blood sugar can impact blood flow, making it harder for your body to heal sores or cuts

Who’s at risk for diabetes?

Being 45 or older puts you at risk for diabetes, but it’s far from the only cause. Other risk factors include:5

  • Prediabetes
  • Being overweight
  • Having a parent or siblings with type 2 diabetes
  • Not getting much physical activity
  • Current or previous gestational diabetes
  • Being Black, Hispanic, Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native; Pacific Islanders and Asian American people are also at higher risk 

How can you lower your risk?

Quit smoking. According to the CDC, nicotine can raise blood sugar, making it harder to keep your levels stable.6

Focus on diet and exercise. You can lower your risk by eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy. If you’re carrying some extra weight, start with small changes:

  • Try to limit processed foods and sugary desserts and beverages
  • Drink more water
  • Eat more healthy fats
  • Meet friends at the movies or a museum instead of a restaurant
  • Find every opportunity to move more – 30 minutes a day is ideal

“Engaging in activities like walking, gardening, dancing – that’s a big deal. Physical activity helps decrease insulin resistance,” Dr. Diaz adds. 

If you have prediabetes, losing a small amount of weight if you’re overweight can lower your risk for developing type 2 diabetes. A small amount of weight loss means around 5% to 7% of your body weight. 4

Get tested to catch it early. Poorly controlled or uncontrolled blood sugar can cause heart disease, nerve and kidney damage, and even blindness, Dr. Diaz says. Controlling diabetes can help prevent all these conditions. And while preventing type 2 diabetes is the goal, even delaying when you develop it can be very helpful.

“The longer you live with diabetes, the more complications you can have,” Dr. Diaz says. “So if you can fend off the condition for another 10 years, that’s a good step for your overall health.”

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