Type 2 diabetes is an increasingly common condition in the United States and across the world that can bring many challenges to those diagnosed with it. Although many people with diabetes go on to live long, healthy lives, there is some risk of complications that can be severe enough to result in death.
To avoid such complications, it's important to know how to properly manage diabetes and work closely with your doctor. Learn more about type 2 diabetes, its potential complications, and common management strategies below.
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Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition that impacts how well your body manages and regulates the glucose it gets from food. After eating a meal or snack, the glucose ends up in your bloodstream after being absorbed into your digestive system. When it's circulating throughout the blood, insulin, a hormone made by your pancreas, helps glucose get into your body's cells to give them energy.
People with type 2 diabetes don't use insulin as efficiently, which can cause glucose to stay out of the cells and in the blood. When blood glucose levels remain high over a long period, it can lead to organ, blood vessel, and nerve damage.
Type 2 diabetes tends to develop over time, and your doctor may diagnose you with prediabetes or simply tell you that you are at risk for developing it later down the line.
If you are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, it doesn't necessarily mean that you will inevitably develop it. It does mean that your likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes is high if you maintain your current lifestyle. Still, you can minimize those risks by increasing your physical activity, eating a balanced diet, and working with your doctor.
Having type 2 diabetes raises your risk of developing other chronic conditions, like heart disease, kidney disease, and high blood pressure, which increase your risk of premature death. In fact, heart disease alone is responsible for approximately 1 in 3 deaths¹ in the United States each year.
Type 2 diabetes can lead to premature death over time when left uncontrolled because it can damage blood vessels and nerves necessary for helping your heart, eyes, and other important organs function properly. In fact, it is estimated that 65%² of people with diabetes will die from some form of heart disease or stroke.
Fortunately, keeping your blood sugars in check with lifestyle changes and medical interventions can reduce your risk of bodily damage and developing other chronic conditions. However, type 2 diabetes can cause death when diabetic ketoacidosis or a hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state occurs.
Diabetic ketoacidosis³ is more common in those with type 1 diabetes, but people with type 2 diabetes can still develop it. When your body lacks enough insulin to help glucose get into the cells for energy, it has to turn to other energy sources to carry out everyday functions and help you survive.
When it can't get the energy from glucose, the body is forced to break down fat for fuel. This might sound like a good thing, especially if a person is trying to lose weight, but the body produces acids called ketones when it breaks down fat for fuel.
Occasionally having some ketones in the body isn't a big deal, but when they are made fast, they can build up and put you at risk of diabetic ketoacidosis. In many cases, diabetic ketoacidosis is triggered by missing an insulin dose or an illness that prevents you from eating and drinking normally.
Some symptoms of the beginning stages of diabetic ketoacidosis include:
Being thirsty and urinating excessively
Fruity smelling breath
Diabetic ketoacidosis is a medical emergency, as it can lead to loss of consciousness and death.
A hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state⁴ occurs when a person accumulates too much glucose in their blood, which triggers an increase in urination. When left untreated, it can cause significant water loss and serious dehydration. The symptoms of a hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state are the same as hyperglycemia, like frequent urination, exhaustion, dry mouth, and increased thirst.
This condition is especially dangerous in older adults, as dehydration is more difficult to detect. Hyperosmolar hyperglycemic is a life-threatening emergency during which persons affected cannot retain liquids due to diarrhea and vomiting. They can lose consciousness or experience hallucinations, or experience other symptoms of severe dehydration.
Several things can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, such as:
Age, where the risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases after the age of 45
Having low levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL)
Being Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, and Pacific Islander
Not getting enough physical activity
These are just a few of the many factors that can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Whether you have any of the above risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes or not, it's a good idea to get yearly check-ups from your doctor to monitor you for changes in your health that may lead to type 2 diabetes.
Even if you don't have many risk factors for type 2 diabetes, it's still helpful to adhere to a healthy lifestyle to prevent type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions associated with poor diet, inadequate exercise, and more. Although you can't change things like your family history or age, you can be in control of your lifestyle habits, and they can go a long way in keeping you healthy.
Type 2 diabetes is caused by the body not using insulin efficiently enough to regularly keep blood sugar levels within a normal range or when the pancreas can't produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar. The root cause of type 2 diabetes is usually lifestyle habits or genetics that interfere with the body's ability to regulate blood sugars properly.
However, a combination of both factors may cause many cases.
Type 2 diabetes can be managed with lifestyle changes, like a proper diet and enough exercise with oral medications and insulin therapy. Lifestyle changes are the first line of defense, as they can simultaneously reduce your risk of developing other diseases, and they come with few side effects.
An ideal diet for people with diabetes contains plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, moderate amounts of lean protein and low-fat dairy, and low levels of saturated fat and added sugars. For physical activity, the CDC recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week.
However, 300 minutes per week can provide even more health benefits, including losing or maintaining weight.
For some people, making these lifestyle changes is enough to properly manage type 2 diabetes. For others, they may need medications or insulin therapy.
Many oral medications are used to treat diabetes, and they each carry out slightly different functions to reduce your blood sugar levels. Non-insulin injectable drugs are another option for those who may not respond to oral medications. It may take a few tries for you and your doctor to find the right medication that works for you, but they can make a significant difference in keeping your blood sugars in check.
Insulin therapy is typically reserved for those who haven't responded to lifestyle changes or other treatment options. It involves injecting insulin throughout the day to ensure that glucose can get into the cells and keep blood sugars at normal levels.
There are a few different ways that type 2 diabetes can be tested and diagnosed, but the most common include a fasting blood sugar test and an A1C test. A fasting blood sugar test involves having a blood sample drawn after an overnight fast.
Results below 100 mg/dL are considered normal, while those between 100 and 125 mg/dL are usually considered prediabetes. Results above 126 mg/dL on two separate occasions may result in a type 2 diabetes diagnosis.
The A1C test consists of a simple blood draw without a fast, and it looks at how much of the hemoglobin in your blood is coated with glucose. The results are given as a percentage, which can tell your doctor approximately how well your blood sugars have been managed over the past two to three months.
A1C tests can be used to diagnose type 2 diabetes and monitor how effective a current treatment plan is at keeping blood sugar levels in check.
Besides visiting your doctor for annual check-ups, it's also helpful to see your doctor if you are worried about developing type 2 diabetes. If you already have a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, your doctor may recommend coming in every few months for an A1C test and regular checkups, or they may prefer to see you every six months if you are consistently staying within your blood sugar targets.
You should also see a doctor if you experience low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) several times per week, as that may indicate your doctor needs to adjust your medication or treatment plan.
Although it is possible to die from complications from type 2 diabetes, it is also possible to live a long, fulfilling life by learning about managing your condition, building better lifestyle habits, and seeing your physician regularly.
Receiving a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes can feel overwhelming and isolating, but millions of people successfully manage their diabetes every day.
Heart disease and stroke | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Heart disease and diabetes | Web MD
Diabetic ketoacidosis | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Hyperglycemic emergencies | Diabetes Quebec
Prediabetes - Your chance to prevent type 2 diabetes | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Diabetes prevention: 5 tips for taking control | Mayo Clinic
Diabetic ketoacidosis | Mayo Clinic
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes | National Institute of Health
Type 2 diabetes | Cleveland Clinic
It’s called the A1C test, and it’s a powerhouse. | American Diabetes Association
Your diabetes care schedule | Center for Disease Control and Prevention