Women and Diabetes: Know Your Risks

Due to effective educational campaigns, women (and the general public) are better informed about the health risks of heart disease and breast cancer; however, as an endocrinologist specializing in the treatment of diabetes, I have found that many of my female patients are not aware of their risk for this potentially deadly diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, approximately 9.3 million or 8.7 percent of American women over the age of 20 have diabetes, and one-third of these women don’t even know they have the disease.

Are You at Risk?

Diabetes is the fifth deadliest disease in the United States; it is more prevalent among women than breast cancer and can cause heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and vision loss. Unfortunately, many people develop diabetes-related complications because their diabetes is diagnosed late or is poorly controlled. Early diagnosis and effective treatment of diabetes can significantly reduce the risk of developing serious complications.

Although the root causes of diabetes remain unknown, we can now identify certain risk factors that increase the chance of contracting the disease. These factors include:

  • being overweight
  • having high blood pressure
  • leading a sedentary lifestyle
  • having a family history of diabetes

Certain ethnic groups, especially African-Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans and Native Americans, have a greater risk of developing diabetes.

Detecting Diabetes

A simple fasting blood sugar test can determine whether you have diabetes. Blood sugar levels between 100 and 126 are indicative of pre-diabetes. If your fasting blood sugar level is more than 126, this is an indication that you have type II diabetes. Contact your primary care physician to determine whether it is appropriate for you to have this blood test.

If your doctor detects random high blood sugar coupled with other symptoms, such as excessive thirst and urination and weight loss, this can lead to a diagnosis of diabetes.

Health Complications from Diabetes

For women, the potential health complications from diabetes are cause for concern. The heart disease rate among women with diabetes is similar to men, but women with diabetes are more likely to die from their first heart attack. Women with diabetes are seven times more likely to experience congestive heart failure and three times more likely to suffer a stroke than women with normal blood sugar.

Women with diabetes are also 7.6 times more likely to suffer peripheral vascular disease (PVD), which reduces blood and oxygen flow to the feet and legs, than women without diabetes. In severe cases, complications from PVD can lead to amputation of a limb.

Diabetes also presents special challenges during pregnancy. Getting diabetes under control prior to conception and throughout the pregnancy is vital to the health of the mother and the baby.

Women with diabetes who receive preconception care significantly reduce the incidence of congenital malformation in their babies. Pregnant women with diabetes are up to five times more likely to develop toxemia, a disorder marked by hypertension, protein in the urine, swelling, headache and vision problems.

Women with type II diabetes are two-to-three times more likely to deliver large birth weight babies, which means they are more likely to require a cesarean section.

Up to 5 percent of non-diabetic women develop gestational diabetes, which usually disappears when the pregnancy is over. It is most common among African-American, Hispanic/Latino and Native American women and in women with a family history of diabetes. Obese women also have an increased risk of developing gestational diabetes.

Fifty-to-60 percent of the women who experience gestational diabetes during their pregnancies will develop type II diabetes within ten years. Also, children born of women who had gestational diabetes are at increased risk for developing type II diabetes.

Living with Diabetes

Although there is no cure for diabetes, women with the disease can lead rich, full and productive lives. The key is getting diagnosed and putting a treatment plan in place. If you are diagnosed with diabetes, you will work with your primary care physician and/or a diabetes care team, such as the one at the St. James Center for Diabetes, to develop a plan for managing the disease and preventing complications.

Your diabetes care plan will help you eat healthy, exercise and manage your self-care, which includes taking medication, checking blood glucose levels and getting regular checkups.

About the Author

Ilene Weintraub Yohay, MD is a staff endocrinologist with the St. James Center for Diabetes in Chicago Heights. Learn more about the St. James Center for Diabetes at stjameshospital.org.

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