Type 1 Diabetes Risk Factors

Risk factors are genetic, behavioral, and environmental elements that can greatly influence your chance of getting a health condition. 

You can’t change most type 1 diabetes risk factors, such as genetics. However, knowing these risk factors means you can take the necessary steps to reduce some of the modifiable risks. 

All diabetes types have several risk factors, which we will cover in this article. 

Curious about clinical trials for Type 1 diabetes?

Researchers are studying thousands of new treatments and you could be a part of finding a cure while accessing the newest treatments for Type 1 diabetes.

Getting type 1 diabetes

Diabetes is extremely common on a global scale. As lifestyles become increasingly sedentary and people make uninformed dietary choices, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes continues to increase. 

When you eat, your body turns the food into glucose for energy. The glucose enters your bloodstream, and your pancreas secretes insulin to move the glucose to the cells that need it for energy. When you have diabetes, too much glucose in your bloodstream (blood sugar) can’t enter the cells. 

Type 2 diabetes is the most common, accounting for 90-95% of all diabetes cases.¹ In type 2 diabetes, your body cannot use the available insulin. This is because the cells have become insulin-resistant, or your body can’t create enough insulin to maintain normal blood glucose levels.

In contrast, type 1 diabetes is unrelated to lifestyle factors like an unhealthy diet. It is an autoimmune condition that can occur at any age but is most common in children. It can happen suddenly without apparent reason. 

Many misconceptions about the disease can make parents feel it is their fault. There is currently no way to definitely prevent type 1 diabetes, as genetics contribute highly to the development of the condition. That doesn’t mean everyone with a genetic predisposition will get the disease or that there is nothing you can do to reduce your risk.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when your immune system attacks the insulin-making cells in the pancreas (beta cells). These cells ensure your pancreas produces enough insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. 

With these cells unable to perform their function, your blood sugar reaches unhealthy levels that can harm your body. Hyperglycemia results in many symptoms, including: 

  • Fatigue

  • Increased need to urinate

  • Nausea

  • Poor concentration

  • Increased thirst and hunger

  • Fruity-smelling breath

Risk factors for different types of diabetes

Type 1

  • Genetics

  • Environmental

  • Family history

  • Age

Type 2 

  • Being overweight

  • Smoking

  • Family history

  • Sedentary lifestyle

  • Race or ethnicity

  • High cholesterol

Gestational diabetes (Diabetes starting during pregnancy)

  • Being overweight

  • Family history

  • Being prediabetic before becoming pregnant

  • Age

  • Race or ethnicity

What are the risk factors for type 1 diabetes?

Environmental factors

Viral infections

Certain viral infections can trigger the immune system to attack the pancreas islets, the cells responsible for secreting insulin. Research has linked viral infection during infancy to the development of type 1 diabetes. These viruses include enterovirus, polio, and rubella.

Changes in microbiome

Studies² support the hypothesis that altered gut bacteria may play a role in developing type 1 diabetes. Changes may happen to a child’s gut microbiome because of bacterial infection, early use of antibiotics, or diet.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D regulates your immune system while also playing a part in the metabolic pathways related to diabetes. As a result, young people in vitamin D-deficient environments may have a higher risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

The majority of vitamin D in the body comes from exposure to sunlight. A small part comes from consuming foods rich in vitamin D, like fish. Vitamin D deficiency can arise when your environment lacks these sources, as 90% of your recommended daily vitamin D intake comes from the sun. 

Vitamin D deficiency can start in the uterus. If a developing fetus does not receive enough vitamin D, this can increase the child's risk of developing type 1 diabetes. The seasons and the mother’s diet greatly affect how much vitamin D the fetus gets. 

Early ingestion of cow’s milk

There may also be a link³ between ingesting cow's milk during infancy and type 1 diabetes in high-risk children. Very early exposure to cow's milk can cause the body to initiate an immune response to insulin, potentially triggering autoantibody development. 

Because type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the body attacks its insulin-making cells, autoantibodies play a crucial role. Where you can, you should continue breastfeeding as long as possible, up to two years.

Medical professionals advise against cow's milk until infants are twelve months or older. Children should only drink moderate amounts of cow’s milk, especially those at high risk. Some studies⁴ have reported a link between high consumption of cow’s milk in childhood and an increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

Genetic factors

Certain genes can increase the likelihood of developing type 1 diabetes. Most often, type 1 diabetes occurs when specific genes are passed on through generations. 

If you have a family history of the disease, being alert to symptoms in yourself or your children is important. Spotting early signs in children can lead to a prompt diagnosis. 

Furthermore, an islet autoantibody⁵ test can detect diabetes before it has caused any symptoms. The presence of islet autoantibodies is a clear sign the pancreas is not producing beta insulin cells. 

This test can prove highly effective in early treatment before significant health complications arise. 

However, as these antibodies are present before symptoms appear, it is difficult to know if a test is necessary. That’s why being attentive to any health changes is vital. 

Age-related

While anyone can develop type 1 diabetes, it is most common during childhood and adolescence. In particular, two ages have notable peaks: Children 4-6 and 10-14 years old. 

Baby birth weight

Long-term studies⁶ suggest a baby’s weight at birth is related to type 1 diabetes. As birth weight increases, so does the incidence of type 1 diabetes. A 2001 study noted that the risk of type 1 diabetes was greater twofold in children >4,500g (>9lbs 14oz) at birth, compared to the lowest birth weight newborns under 2,000g (4lbs 6oz).

How common is diabetes?

Diabetes is a widespread health concern:

  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO),⁷ 422 million people have diabetes worldwide.

  • In America, an estimated 1 in 10 people has diabetes.

  • Type 2 diabetes is most common in people over 45.

  • Type 1 diabetes is most common in young people under 20.

  • Gestational diabetes affects 2-10%⁸ of pregnant women in the US and can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes after giving birth.

When can you develop type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes can develop at any stage in life. Historically, it has always been more common in those under 20. However, recent studies⁹ have shown that people are increasingly developing type 1 diabetes as adults. It’s almost equal to or more common than onset in children and adolescents. 

So, it is possible to develop type 1 diabetes as an adult, but the severity is often less than in children. In many cases, doctors could misdiagnose it as type 2.

Symptoms 

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes

  • Increased thirst

  • Needing to urinate more frequently

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Changes in mood

  • Poor concentration

  • Increased hunger

  • Bed-wetting in children without previous incidences

Complications of type 1 diabetes

Ketoacidosis

Children may lose a lot of weight rapidly as their body enters ketoacidosis. This occurs when they have insufficient energy to maintain their body weight and everyday activities. It can also happen if there isn’t enough insulin available to use the available glucose for energy. In this case, the body will start using fat and muscle tissues. 

Ketoacidosis only occurs if diabetes is left untreated, so it is vital to keep an eye on children for any of the following symptoms:

  • Headache

  • Fruity-smelling breath

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Stomach pain

  • Fast, deep breathing

  • Dry skin

  • Dry mouth

  • Flushed face

  • Feeling fatigued

This condition can be life-threatening, so you must be aware of the symptoms of ketoacidosis. When a child enters ketoacidosis,¹⁰ it is a critical health emergency that requires immediate care.

When to visit a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if any of the following symptoms develop:

  • Increased thirst

  • Needing to urinate more frequently

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Changes in mood

  • Poor concentration

  • Increased hunger

Some of these symptoms are common in many illnesses, but it is always best to seek medical advice if you have any concerns. 

Emergency symptoms include:

  • Pain in the abdominal area

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Confusion

  • Shaking

  • Heavy rapid breathing

  • Loss of consciousness

Please seek immediate medical attention if you or your child have any of these symptoms.

You can manage type 1 diabetes most effectively when it is detected early. This way, your doctor can treat you quickly, and you will get the support you need.

If left too long without detection or treatment, type 1 diabetes can cause ketoacidosis, which can be life-threatening if untreated. 

The lowdown 

Type 1 diabetes is a condition that usually develops in childhood or adolescence but can occur at any time of life. Lifestyle choices do not cause type 1 diabetes: It’s an autoimmune condition with a strong genetic predisposition. 

Other environmental factors like viral infections and dietary factors such as vitamin D deficiency and early ingestion of cow’s milk may also trigger the immune system. So far, science has not found a definite way to prevent the condition. 

With the proper treatment and lifestyle adjustments, type 1 diabetes is a manageable condition that does not need to impact your quality of life.

Curious about clinical trials for Type 1 diabetes?

Researchers are studying thousands of new treatments and you could be a part of finding a cure while accessing the newest treatments for Type 1 diabetes.

Discover which clinical trials you are eligible for

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Have you taken medication for Type 1 diabetes?
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