Getting Familiar with Diabetes & Its Many Forms

Diabetic test kit

A 2016 research study published in the Canada Medical Association Journal estimated that over 50% of Canadians were susceptible to developing diabetes over the course of their lifetimes.  The study was headed by a group of researchers at the University of Calgary, and it involved interpreting data provided by the province of Alberta.  Despite that people who are diagnosed with diabetes can continue to live long and healthy lives, the scary thing about diabetes is that people tend to have a limited understanding of this disease.  Although diabetes can occur as a result of a poor diet or organs not working the way they are supposed to, it can also occur pre-birth—while the baby is still in its mother’s womb, or it can be the result of a syndrome whose symptoms may not have a definite cause, or it can even be a response to an autoimmune disorder.

While diabetes may not always be entirely preventable, getting familiar with the different forms that disease can take is a great starting point to learn more about all things diabetes.

The three most common forms of diabetes make up around 98% of diabetes cases.

The three most common forms of diabetes are type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes, and these three forms of diabetes make up around 98% of all diabetes cases.

Type 1 diabetes is frequently found in children and adolescents, and it occurs because a person’s body no longer produces insulin.  It is considered an autoimmune disease.  The cause of type 1 diabetes is still somewhat unknown, but researchers believe it has both genetic and environmental triggers like a virus.  A person with type 1 diabetes must take daily insulin injections to keep their blood sugar level under control.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when a person’s pancreas produces less insulin, or their body becomes less sensitive to insulin, and they develop resistance to it.  The main cause of type 2 diabetes often has to do with a combination of environmental and genetic factors.  While a person’s health situation can improve with a healthy diet and regular exercise, over time such a person will eventually be required to take insulin injections or oral diabetes medication.

Gestational diabetes is caused by high blood sugar levels during pregnancy, and it can create complications for both a mother and her unborn child and be a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes later in life.  Gestational diabetes occurs due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but it is more likely in women with high a Body Mass Index.  Treating it does not always require medication and the blood sugar levels can be managed through exercise and healthy diets.  It often goes away after birth.

The other 2% of diabetes diagnoses are rare and more difficult to diagnose.

The remaining 2%-or-so of diabetes cases are much rarer and they can be more difficult to diagnose due to their ability to copycat the symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes, but they are the result of other factors or syndromes.  Some of those rare conditions include type 3 diabetes, latent autoimmune diabetes, mature onset diabetes, neonatal diabetes, steroid-induced diabetes, brittle diabetes, but also alstrom syndrome and wolfram syndrome.

Type 3 diabetes occurs as a result of any condition that may cause damage to the pancreas such as pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, or cystic fibrosis, which can damage the pancreas to the point that it triggers this type of diabetes.  It can also occur as a result of major trauma to the stomach are or other extreme incidents that damage a person’s stomach area and it requires insulin injections for the duration of a person’s life.

Latent autoimmune diabetes (LAD) is somewhat of a cross between type 1 and type 2 diabetes and is almost always diagnosed in adults.  What makes LAD complicated is that it progresses far slower than type 1 diabetes and its symptoms are more extreme than type 2.  A person that has LAD will need to take medication, but eventually only insulin injections will work.

Mature onset diabetes (MOD) occurs as a result of a gene mutation, and it runs in families, but it is different from type 1 and type 2 diabetes.  A person can have a healthy diet and exercise but still develop MOD.  It may or may not require taking medication.

Neonatal diabetes occurs in babies before they are 6 months of age, but it is not the result of an autoimmune condition.  Instead, it occurs as a result of a change in the gene that produces insulin, and it can be a transitionary condition that resolves itself before a baby turns one year old or it can be a permanent condition that lasts for the duration of their life.

Steroid-induced diabetes is triggered by the long-term use of corticosteroids and individuals who are already at risk of type 2 diabetes are most likely to get it.  This form of diabetes can be temporary, and it can be resolved by refraining from corticosteroid use as well as a healthy diet and exercise, but it can also turn into a life-long condition that requires taking diabetic medication for life.

Brittle diabetes is a form of type 1 diabetes, and is one of the most difficult forms of diabetes to control.  The defining characteristics of brittle diabetes is rollercoaster highs and lows in blood sugar level that can occur on a daily and even hourly basis.  This form of diabetes is more common in females, and it tends to occur in early adulthood, being associated with stress, depression, and other mental health conditions.

Alstrom syndrome is a genetically inherited condition that can resemble type 2 diabetes in youth, but the difference is that children tend to have extreme insulin resistance and high blood fat levels that require receiving insulin injections.  It often creates problems for other organs including kidneys, lungs, and liver.

Wolfram syndrome is a genetically inherited condition that appears in childhood with the first symptoms being those found in diabetes, as well as vision problems.  It is a degenerative disease that targets a person’s brain, and it has a poor outlook.

Caution: Diabetes is trending upwards.

In 2020, Diabetes Canada published a report that estimated that around 11 million Canadians live with prediabetes or diabetes, and more recent figures have shown that diabetes is increasing and that there are no signs that it will level or decrease.  What might be more shocking are recent numbers that Diabetes Canada cited in a 2022 press release, stating that the cost on Canada’s healthcare system to treat people with diabetes was 30 billion dollars per year.  Other data that Diabetes Canada has highlighted includes that from a 2019 press release which notes that less than 50% of Canadians were capable of identifying even less than half of the early warning signs associated with diabetes, even though Canadians around the age of 20 have a 50% chance of developing diabetes in their lifetime.

The scary reality about diabetes is that when a person’s body struggles to manage its blood sugar levels it can contribute toward negative health outcomes like heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, nerve damage, leg amputations, and even Alzheimer’s disease.  For pregnant women that struggle with diabetes during their pregnancy, diabetes can result in outcomes like a miscarriage, stillbirth, or result in birth defects.  Although the general sign and symptoms of diabetes include unusual thirst, frequent urination, weight change, extreme fatigue and blurred vision, there is far more to this disease, which is precisely why it is worth getting more familiar with it.