Diabetes mellitus and prediabetes are the most common endocrine diseases in the United States, affecting more than 133 million Americans. That accounts for more than a third of the American population. But if you have a family history of type 2 diabetes, the cards may feel like they’re stacked against you even higher in your fight to prevent developing the disease.
We spoke to Linda Wood, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Texas Health Denton, to learn if type 2 diabetes is preventable and what resources North Texans with a family history of the disease have available to them as they fight to make the disease a thing of the past in their family tree.
How Genetics and Family Habits Affect Diabetes
Family genetics do play a role in the development of diabetes, but it’s not as simple as you may think. Unlike some traits, like your mother’s eyes, your grandfather’s height, or your father’s widow’s peak, diabetes does not seem to be inherited in such a simple pattern.
“Identical twins have the same genes. However, when one identical twin has type 1 diabetes, the other twin will only develop the disease less than 50 percent of the time,” Wood says. “In type 2 diabetes, when one identical twin has the disease the other twin’s risk of developing it is at most 75 percent. Even though genes play a role in developing both types of diabetes, type 2 diabetes has a stronger association with a family history than type 1 diabetes.”
Although a family member cannot physically pass the disease to you or you to your children, like a cold or the flu, they are likely to pass down a predisposition to the disease. That predisposition mixed with an environmental trigger is what causes the development of diabetes. Since families do tend to pass down the environmental triggers, like poor diet or exercise habits, someone who is already predisposed genetically has a higher chance of developing diabetes.
Getting Started Begins with Lifestyle
“Type 2 diabetes is often considered a ‘lifestyle’ disease because how we choose to live can play an important role in our risk for developing the disease,” Wood explains. “We don’t know what causes diabetes, but there are certain risk factors for the disease. Some of these risk factors can be altered and others can’t.”
Risk factors you can’t change include:
- Family history
The good news is that there are many lifestyle choices one can make to reduce their risk, such as being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight.
It is recommended that adults obtain 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75 minutes each week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
Wood says those numbers may sound daunting, especially if you’ve been sedentary for some time, but you can start small and work your way up.
“This could be accomplished by a brisk 30-minute walk, five days per week,” she says. “If that seems too difficult, you could take a brisk walk for 10 minutes three times per day.”
Children should also get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, including aerobic exercise, and muscle- and bone-strengthening activities, like climbing on playground equipment, swinging on monkey bars or riding a bike.
Woods explains that weight management is just as important as getting the adequate amount of exercise when trying to reduce your risk of developing diabetes. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association states that nearly 70 percent of adults and nearly 32 percent of children in the United States are overweight or obese.
Woods says a good resource to get you started is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a free resource provided by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, to give Americans a tool to develop and help implement a healthier diet into their lifestyle. If you prefer more guidance, Texas Health also offers Medical Nutrition Therapy programs and has diabetes education centers throughout the metroplex that are created and run by registered dietitians, nutritionists and certified diabetes educators to help you get started and achieve goals.
“Treatment and prevention of disease often starts with the food we eat,” Woods says. “Whether a person has diabetes or not, all persons from the community are welcome.”
If you’re already living with diabetes or prediabetes, Wood acknowledges that the diagnosis can be a bit discouraging, especially if you took steps to try to prevent the disease, but says the good news is that diabetes is highly manageable.
“The reality is that diabetes isn’t completely preventable, but it is a disease that can be managed,” Wood says. “I have been working with individuals with diabetes for over 25 years, and have noticed that those who are motivated to manage their disease have been able to do it successfully. There will always be the ups and downs of trying to manage blood sugar, but with proper education and support it can be managed.
“The good news is that lifestyle changes can postpone or possibly alleviate a diagnosis of diabetes. I would encourage a person with a family history of diabetes to focus on lifestyle changes that have proven to reduce the risk of diabetes. Small lifestyle changes can add up to large health benefits.”
For more information about diabetes and Texas Health’s diabetes outpatient centers, and to take a diabetes risk assessment, visit TexasHealth.org/Diabetes.