Diabetes mellitus is a lifelong health condition that affects your body's ability to produce and process insulin, resulting in high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia). Of the three types of diabetes —type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes mellitus — type 2 diabetes is the most common diagnosis.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that often occurs early in life in which your pancreas (an organ that lies behind your belly button) doesn't properly make insulin.
In type 2 diabetes, your pancreas doesn't make enough insulin (or the body becomes resistant to the insulin produced), and this usually emerges later in life as a result of the person's lifestyle. Gestational diabetes (GD) occurs during pregnancy and is often resolved after delivery.
About 415 million¹ people across the globe live with diabetes (projected to reach more than half a billion in 2040). Of the 37 million living with it in the U.S., 90-95%² have type 2 diabetes.
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According to research,³ more than 199 million women live with diabetes. What's more, that number is expected to grow to 313 million by 2040. It's also the ninth leading global cause of death among females, with 2.1 million deaths — many of which are premature — occurring every year.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that diabetes is more common among males than females, women are reported to be prone to many more complications and risks after diagnosis. In fact, the report found that women:
Have a four-times higher risk of cardiovascular disease as a result of diabetes
Must consider serious preparations if intending to get pregnant while diagnosed or at high risk of developing diabetes
The prevalence of type 2 diabetes has increased over the years and is expected to continue rising. To prevent and save lives whenever possible, identifying potential risk factors for diabetes allows doctors to diagnose the condition sooner or recommend changes for prevention.
According to one academic review,⁴ the following are typical risk factors that have been strongly associated with type 2 diabetes:
Sleep quantity and quality
High-level serum uric acid
Ethnicity (such as Native American, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiian, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders)
On the other hand, some research has found that risk factors can vary by sex. For instance, one study reported that these two risk factors are more specific to women than men:
High uric acid levels
Moreover, women increase their odds of a type 2 diabetes diagnosis with a history of:
Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM or GD) — pregnant women diagnosed with GD are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) — one study⁵ linked PCOS to insulin resistance, which occurs in type 2 diabetes
For people with common risk factors for diabetes, screening is the first step. In these cases, your healthcare provider may choose to screen you if you're:
Overweight or obese
Over the age of 35
Under 35, are either overweight or obese and have one or more additional risk factors
A child who is overweight or obese, has a family health history, and other risk factors associated with the condition
If you fit any of these diabetes criteria — particularly with a family health history of diabetes where a close family member has it, talk to your doctor about diabetes testing.
If your physician suspects diabetes after taking a full medical history, there are one of four ways they may go about testing for diabetes:
Random plasma glucose testing — measures your blood glucose level at the time of the test
Glycated hemoglobin (A1C) test — a blood test people at risk for diabetes take to get a reading of their average blood sugar levels over the last three months
Fasting blood sugar test — the person fasts overnight and gets their blood drawn the next day
Two-hour plasma glucose test/oral glucose tolerance test (GTT or OGTT) — most commonly used during pregnancy
Recognizing the early signs and symptoms of diabetes is crucial to prevent severe complications of this condition. The earlier you're diagnosed, the quicker you can manage your blood glucose levels and change your lifestyle for the better.
Women with diabetes mellitus often experience the following symptoms early on:
There has been a strong association between yeast infections and high blood sugar levels established in research⁶ over the years. This is because yeast infections grow with sugar, so it isn't uncommon for yeast infections to occur with high blood sugar levels. One study,⁷ in particular, found that people without diabetes were at a lower risk for yeast infections than people with diabetes (type 1 or type 2).
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a common infection among women with or without diabetes. However, research shows that the risk of infection is 'highly prevalent among people with type 2 diabetes in particular. Another study⁸ adds that UTIs are more common and more severe, with worse outcomes among people with type 2 diabetes.
Another common sign of diabetes is an increase in sexual dysfunction among women. The symptom is also observed in males with diabetes, but it is less studied in men.
One cross-sectional study⁹ of Iranian women reported a 78.7% prevalence of sexual dysfunction among 150 women, with most between the ages of 40 and 44. Another extensive study¹⁰ of several publications and 3892 individuals noted a 68.6% prevalence of sexual dysfunction among diabetic women with type 2 diabetes.
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), other diabetes symptoms may include:
Low energy levels
Slow-healing cuts and bruises
Feeling hungry even after eating
Numbness, pain, or tingling in your hands and/or feet
Diabetes, especially when uncontrolled, can lead to serious health consequences. This is why people at risk of diabetes need to be regularly screened and tested. In fact, some research reports the percentage of people with diabetes who experience complications falls between 60 and 70%.¹¹
Furthermore, another study¹² reported the following prevalences:
Cardiovascular (heart) complications
Cerebrovascular (brain) complications
Neuropathy (damage to the nerves)
Nephropathy (kidney damage)
Ocular (eye) lesions
As previously mentioned, the risk of heart disease among women is four times higher with a diabetes diagnosis. Heart disease as a complication of type 2 diabetes can include several very serious problems such as coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease.
Commonly referred to as diabetic kidney disease (DKD), many people with diabetes have experienced this chronic complication. The overall prevalence of kidney disease is 35% among all diabetics.
According to the CDC, people with diabetes can experience one or more of the following eye problems and diseases as a complication:
Blurred vision/vision loss
Furthermore, another study¹³ reported that diabetic retinopathy is the cause of 12,000 to 24,000 new cases of blindness every year.
Feelings of depression are another complication that is more common among females than males. According to an academic review, the percentages of the prevalence of depression in women were similar throughout developed countries, suggesting that the risk was associated with sex rather than other factors like race, diet, education, and culture.
There are ways to manage symptoms of type 2 diabetes to reduce potential complications and improve quality of life.
According to the American Journal of Medicine, common forms of type 2 diabetes treatment used today include:
Lifestyle changes — increasing physical activity, eating healthier, and adding more nutrient-dense foods and ingredients to your diet (often with the help of a diabetes dietitian)
Diabetes medication — metformin is the most common medication
Intensive therapy — treatment therapies can be pursued early on to help reach lower average blood glucose levels, such as insulin therapy
Insulin — usually basal insulin
Lose body weight if overweight or obese
Drink more water
If you suspect that you are at risk of having type 2 diabetes, talk to your doctor about diabetes testing. This includes telling your doctor when/if close family members develop the condition so you can be proactive about preventing or delaying your diagnosis.
Likewise, you should also be open and honest with your doctor about how your treatment is going after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes increases your chances of several health complications, so it's important that you work closely with your doctor to keep your diabetes under control.
The worst-case scenarios with diabetes happen more often than not due to allowing the condition to be uncontrolled.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes, affecting millions of American women. With the right diabetes care, however, symptoms can be managed appropriately, and the risk of complications can be reduced.
The most common risks for type 2 diabetes in women specifically include a history of gestational diabetes, a current diagnosis of PCOS, high uric acid levels, and lack of physical activity. Other more general population risks include a family history of type 2 diabetes and high body mass (being overweight or obese).
Common symptoms to look for include excessive thirst, low energy levels, extreme hunger despite eating, high blood pressure, and recurrent urinary tract infections or yeast infections such as vaginal thrush.
Complications that affect many people with type 2 diabetes include:
Nerve problems in the hands and feet
If you have already been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, treatment for your condition may include one or more of the following: insulin, medication such as metformin, major lifestyle changes, meeting with a nutritionist, and sometimes intensive therapy.
If you have not been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes but are at risk of developing it, preventative measures include quitting smoking, cutting sugar and refined carbohydrates from your diet, and losing weight.
If you notice symptoms of diabetes, you should always discuss any concerns or questions with your medical provider. Your doctor will be able to do blood tests to determine if you have diabetes and, if necessary, get you started on the proper treatment as soon as possible.
World diabetes day | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Type 2 diabetes | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Complications: The toll of diabetes | Scientific American