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Steps Women Can Take to Reduce Their Diabetes Risk

Type 2 diabetes can be deadly for women, especially minority women. The prevalence is two to four times higher among women who are African-American, Hispanic, American Indian, or Asian/Pacific Islander, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Over the last 30 years, death rates associated with heart disease have decreased in women without diabetes, while women with type 2 diabetes have seen an alarming increase, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Lifestyle changes

What behaviors do women need to change? Basically, the big two: poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle.

Being overweight is directly linked to developing type 2 diabetes, and, as Americans' weights have soared in recent decades, so has the prevalence of the disease.

According to the CDC, more than 12 million American women ages 20 and older have diabetes. During pregnancy, diabetes can have serious effects on both mother and child, and it can increase a woman's risk for fertility problems and miscarriage. It's also linked to many other health problems, including high blood pressure, blindness, kidney failure, nerve problems, and increased risk for hip and shoulder fractures.

Understanding diabetes

If you have diabetes, your body can't produce or efficiently use insulin. This is the hormone needed to transport blood sugar from your blood, into your body's cells, where it is used for energy. As a result, blood sugar levels remain dangerously high. Without usable sugar, your body lacks the energy it needs to function and stay healthy.

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in childhood through early adulthood, but it can occur at any age. Type 2 is much more common. The majority of women with diabetes have type 2 diabetes. It usually develops after age 45, but is increasingly being diagnosed in children and adolescents. It's far better to do what you can to prevent type 2 diabetes or to identify it as early as possible, rather than wait until symptoms develop. Early detection and treatment can help avoid serious complications of diabetes, such as stroke, heart and kidney problems, blindness, or foot or leg amputation.

Steps you can take

You should talk to your doctor to find out if you are at increased risk for diabetes. Men and women alike should be tested for type 2 diabetes by age 45 and receive additional tests every three years, as long as they have normal results. Ask your health care provider about your personal risk factors and how often you should be tested.

You are at increased risk for diabetes if you:

  • Are age 45 or older

  • Have a family history of the disease

  • Are overweight or obese (BMI of 25 or more) 

  • Are in a high-risk ethnic group (African-American, Hispanic, American Indian, or Asian/Pacific Islander) 

  • Have a history of diabetes during pregnancy or have delivered a baby weighing more than 9 pounds

  • Have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or prediabetes a condition in which blood glucose levels are above normal, but not yet in the diabetes range

The more risk factors you have, the higher your chance of developing diabetes.

If it turns out that you are at risk, be a team player. Work with your health care provider to develop lifestyle habits that will lower your risk.

If you are pregnant, talk to your obstetrician about your risk. Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that can pose serious health risks to both the pregnant woman and her unborn child — everything from high blood pressure and kidney infections to spontaneous abortion, premature delivery, and problems of low glucose in the newborn. In addition, women who have poorly controlled diabetes before getting pregnant are more likely to have babies with birth defects. Most obstetricians/gynecologists screen women for diabetes during the 24th to 28th weeks of pregnancy.

At-risk mothers should communicate their risk factors to their health care providers. If expectant mothers work closely with their health care team to keep their blood sugar close to normal, the risk for complications to themselves and their babies drops dramatically.

Nutrition and exercise

Another key step to help prevent or control diabetes is to eat better and exercise more. These two changes alone may prevent diabetes or delay its onset and complications.

Learn to eat a well-balanced diet that is low in fat and simple sugars. Balance what you eat with the amount of physical activity you get each day. If you are overweight, lose weight. Even a modest weight loss can reduce your risk for diabetes. Ideally, you should attempt to maintain a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 25. If your BMI is 25 or higher, make an effort through diet and exercise to get it within that range.

Find things you enjoy doing that will help you be more physically active. Exercise not only helps to prevent or delay diabetes, it also helps you to control your weight and make you feel better.

Getting more exercise doesn't just mean going to the gym. Being more active in your everyday life is also important. Walk to more places. Take the steps rather than the elevator. Choose some fun physical activities to do, such as bike riding, tennis, or walking.

Women who take up these healthful habits will serve as good role models for their children. Overweight and obese children are also at increased risk for type 2 diabetes.

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