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Diabetes occurs when the body can't effectively regulate the glucose (sugar) in the blood. Glucose is essential for our energy supply. However, if there are prolonged high levels in our bloodstream it can cause damage, especially to finer blood vessels and nerve endings.

The glucose in your blood is metabolised, or processed, by a substance called insulin that is manufactured in the pancreas. If you have diabetes, your pancreas is either unable to produce insulin at all, unable to produce it in sufficient quantities or your body is unable to use the insulin produced to effectively metabolise glucose.

There are three major types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes. Also known as ‘juvenile or insulin dependent diabetes’, this is usually present from an early age. With this form of diabetes the pancreas cannot produce insulin effectively at all, so insulin must be supplied to the body instead, usually by injection.
  • Type 2 diabetes. This is the most common form and it’s also known as ‘adult onset’ or ‘insulin resistant’ diabetes. Initially, your body doesn’t respond to insulin well (this is called insulin resistance). Your pancreas responds by pumping out more insulin, sometimes to quite high levels, but eventually your pancreas will fail to produce enough insulin. Your risk of developing this type of diabetes grows with age and is closely linked with lifestyle factors such as being overweight and/or having an unhealthy diet.
  • Gestational diabetes. This type of diabetes can occur during pregnancy. While it usually disappears once the baby is born, having gestational diabetes puts you at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Diabetes is the fastest growing chronic health condition in the developed world. It affects an estimated 1.4 million Australians – half of whom may not even be aware that they have the condition. This is because symptoms of diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, can come on slowly over time and go unnoticed at first.

However, a simple blood test from your GP can show the glucose levels in your blood and whether you require further testing for diabetes.

Symptoms of diabetes

Symptoms of diabetes can be vague and often have slow onset. With type 2 diabetes, you may even experience no symptoms in the early stages.

Symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Tiredness and lack of energy
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling very thirsty
  • Excessive urination.

Diabetes, heart disease and stroke

Heart disease and diabetes go hand in hand. Coronary artery disease in particular is a major complication of diabetes.

In fact, adults with diabetes have heart disease death rates two to four times higher than adults who don’t have diabetes. There is a similar increase in the risk of stroke for adults with diabetes.

If you have diabetes, you’re also more likely to have related conditions that lead to, or exacerbate, coronary artery disease including atherosclerosis, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Those conditions are also likely to be more severe or have a more significant effect on your heart health.

For that reason, it’s especially important if you have diabetes to be diligent about monitoring and managing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And if you have type 2 diabetes, focusing on the many changes you can make to reduce the effect the condition has on your life and health is also very important.

Most of the lifestyle-related risk factors for diabetes are the same as for heart disease. So the many lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your heart disease risk will also help your diabetes, and vice versa.

Next: Other lifestyle factors

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2011

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