Understanding the Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes

Susan Biegel, MD Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes

More than 110 million Americans have diabetes or are at risk for developing the disease, according to data from the CDC, which lists diabetes as the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. What’s more, many people with prediabetes — a condition that makes them more likely to develop diabetes within five years — don’t even know they have the condition, which means they’re not doing anything to improve their health and potentially prevent the disease. While the CDC data includes people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, most people have type 2 — yet many Americans don’t know the difference between the two types or what symptoms they should be looking for.

Type 1 vs. type 2 diabetes

Type 1 and type 2 diabetes both affect glucose or “blood sugar,” but they differ in other key ways. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that develops most commonly during childhood and the teen years. In type 1 diabetes, your immune system attacks cells in your pancreas. Normally, these cells help produce insulin, a hormone that helps metabolize glucose, turning it into a type of energy that your cells can use to stay healthy and function normally. Type 1 diabetes destroys many of these cells, so your body is no longer able to manage or control your glucose levels and your tissues and organs can’t access the amount of energy they need to maintain health and function.

Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disease that’s much more common among older people. The most common cause of type 2 diabetes is obesity. In type 2 diabetes, your body produces insulin, but sometimes it doesn’t produce enough insulin. Other times, your body simply doesn’t use insulin efficiently, so your body doesn’t convert glucose into energy the way it’s supposed to. Although type 2 diabetes is more common among people age 35 and older, today the rates of childhood obesity are skyrocketing, and with it, the number of children with type 2 diabetes is also increasing.

While both types of diabetes are serious medical conditions, type 1 is more “dangerous,” often requiring regular administration of insulin (often through insulin shots) to keep the disease under control.

Symptoms to watch out for

Even though they’re caused by different underlying problems, type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes share a lot of common symptoms, including:

Many people with type 2 diabetes experience very subtle symptoms or, sometimes, no symptoms at all, which is one reason why regular screenings are so very important, especially as you get older.

Without treatment, diabetes can cause serious medical problems. As glucose “builds up” in your blood, it can cause permanent damage to your eyes, your kidneys, and your nerves. Many people with diabetes develop diabetic neuropathy, a major cause of foot and lower leg amputations. Diabetes also increases your risks for heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and other types of dementia.

Diagnosis and treatment

In most cases, diabetes can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. There are some risk factors that can make you more prone to developing diabetes, and knowing those factors is important as well. For type 1, the most common risk factor is a family history of the disease. For type 2, which is the more common type of diabetes, risk factors include:

While most people with type 1 diabetes will need to monitor their blood sugar and take insulin regularly, people with type 2 diabetes may be able to decrease their symptoms with diet and exercise, in addition to taking medication and using insulin when needed. 

Know your risks

Susan Biegel, MD, is a leading provider of diabetes care for people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, plus she can help men and women with prediabetes take important steps to reduce their risks for developing the disease. To learn more about diabetes treatment or to find out more about your own risks, book an appointment online today.

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