What Causes Diabetes? Understand the Main Risk Factors

What causes diabetes? Uncover the primary risk factors contributing to the development of this chronic condition, including genetics, lifestyle habits, and more.

Diabetes is a serious health issue that impacts how our bodies handle blood sugar (glucose). Around 97.6 million adults from 18 to 64 years old and 27.2 million who are 65 or older have prediabetes in the U.S. Many individuals with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes don’t know they have it.1 Lifestyle choices can help lower some diabetes risk factors. But some risks, like getting older, are beyond our control.

Research shows that type 2 diabetes mainly happens when cells in the body ignore insulin. This insulin is crucial for managing blood sugar. Also, the pancreas might not produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar at safe levels.2 An overview of diabetes by the third source highlights its impact on how the body uses blood sugar. It includes types like type 1 and type 2. There are also conditions that might go away, such as prediabetes and diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes).

Key Takeaways

  • Diabetes influences blood sugar handling in the body.
  • Risk factors include aspects we can change, like our habits, and those we cannot.
  • The main causes of type 2 diabetes are issues with insulin and blood sugar control.
  • Prediabetes and gestational diabetes offer chances for reversal.
  • Knowing about diabetes causes and risks is vital for prevention and control.


Diabetes is a serious health issue that impacts many Americans. It is vital to know about its reach and diverse forms to fight it effectively. In this section, we’ll look at diabetes in the U.S., covering its prevalence and types.

Prevalence of Diabetes in the United States

In the U.S., about 97.6 million adults aged 18-64 and 27.2 million over 65 have prediabetes. This means their blood sugar is too high but not at diabetes levels yet.3 Many with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes don’t know it. This shows we need more awareness and checks.

Types of Diabetes

The third source details the types of diabetes, like Type 1 and Type 2, prediabetes, and gestational diabetes. Type 1 usually shows up during childhood, with Type 2 often appearing after 40 but now more common among young people too. Prediabetes and gestational diabetes are conditions you can often reverse by changing your lifestyle.

Non-Modifiable Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes

Certain risk factors for type 2 diabetes can’t be changed by lifestyle. These factors are things like family history, ethnicity, age, and if you’ve had gestational diabetes.4

Family History

If your family has a history of diabetes, you may face a higher risk. This means if one or both parents have had diabetes, your risk goes up, too.5

Race or Ethnic Background

Your race or where your family comes from impacts your diabetes risk. For example, people of South Asian descent have a much higher risk. This is also true for those of African heritage or African-Caribbean descent.5 Factors such as your cultural background matter a lot. This includes some communities like Pacific Islanders and those from China or India.6


The older you get, the more at risk you are for type 2 diabetes. This risk keeps going up as people pass the age of 40.4 Age is a key factor in diabetes risk.6

Gestational Diabetes

Having gestational diabetes while pregnant raises your diabetes risk later on.4 Women who’ve dealt with this or have polycystic ovary syndrome are at higher risk.6

non-modifiable diabetes risk factors

Modifiable Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes

Some diabetes risks, like family history and age, we can’t change. But, we can tackle a lot through how we live. This cuts the chance of getting type 2 diabetes.4


If you’re overweight, your risk of type 2 diabetes goes up. But, shedding 5-10% of your weight can do wonders. It helps a lot in avoiding the disease.4

Physical Activity

Doing regular exercise is key. Aim for 150 minutes each week. This can make your body use insulin better. It cuts down the risk of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.4

Blood Pressure

High blood pressure makes diabetes worse. So, if you have diabetes or may get it, keep your blood pressure normal. This means lower than 130/80 mm Hg.4


Quit smoking to help dodge type 2 diabetes. This step also lessens other health issues linked to diabetes.4

What Causes Diabetes?

Diabetes comes from several things, like the body not using insulin well or not making enough of it. The main issues causing type 2 diabetes are related to insulin.1

Insulin Resistance

The first problem is insulin resistance. Cells in muscles, fat, and liver stop responding to insulin. They can’t take in and use sugar from the blood well. This causes high blood sugar levels.1

Insufficient Insulin Production

The second problem is low insulin production. This happens when the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin. Without insulin, sugar can’t move into cells, increasing blood sugar.1

Experts haven’t figured out all the reasons for insulin issues. But, being overweight and not exercising enough are big parts of the problem.1

Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes has many risk factors. Some can change with our lifestyle, while others can’t. Knowing and acting on these factors is key to avoiding diabetes.

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Being overweight or obese increases the risk of diabetes.7 If you’re an adult with a BMI over 25, you’re at risk. This is even more serious for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. For them, the risk starts at a lower BMI.7

Fat Distribution

Where you carry fat on your body affects your risk.7 Men with a waist over 40 inches and non-pregnant women over 35 inches face more risk.2 Studies show that a bigger waist also means a higher chance of dying early for many people.7


Not being active is a big risk for diabetes.2 Moving more, like exercising 30 minutes a day, most days, helps prevent it.

Family History

If a parent or sibling has type 2 diabetes, your risk goes up.2 It shows genes or family play a part in the disease.

Race and Ethnicity

Some groups face higher diabetes risks.2 Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian Americans are more at risk than whites.

Blood Lipid Levels

Bad blood lipid levels boost your diabetes risk.7 But managing these through health care can lower that risk.


Your diabetes risk goes up with age, especially after 35.2 This is because of less insulin sensitivity and less physical activity.


If you have prediabetes, your risk of getting type 2 diabetes soon is higher.2 But changing your lifestyle or taking metformin can help a lot.

Pregnancy-Related Risks

Having gestational diabetes or a big baby raises your diabetes risk later on.2 Also, small or premature babies from moms with gestational diabetes are more at risk.7

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

PCOS in women makes type 2 diabetes risk higher.2 A mix of factors, including those from family, age, and lifestyle, can make diabetes more likely.7

Knowing these risks helps people take steps to stay healthy.2 They can change their lifestyle and work with doctors to avoid diabetes.7

Complications of Diabetes

Diabetes, when not handled well, can cause serious health issues. These problems can really affect how someone lives.

These issues include a higher chance of heart and blood vessel diseases. People might also face nerve damage that affects their limbs and digestive system, and causes erectile dysfunction. There are also risks of kidney disease, eye damage, and foot problems, which could lead to blindness or even amputations.89

Heart and Blood Vessel Disease

If you have diabetes, you’re more likely to have heart issues like heart attacks and strokes. Heart disease is common among people with diabetes.89

Nerve Damage

Diabetes can damage nerves, affecting the limbs and digestive system. It can also cause erectile dysfunction. This occurs when high sugar levels affect the blood vessels and nerves, disrupting blood flow.8

Kidney Disease

Diabetes can harm the kidneys, potentially leading to kidney failure. Testing your urine regularly is key to catching kidney disease early in diabetes patients.89

Eye Damage

Diabetes could also harm your eyes, specifically through diabetic retinopathy which might lead to blindness. Regular eye checks by an eye doctor are crucial for early detection.89

Foot Damage

The condition can affect the nerves and blood flow in your feet. This can lead to infections, ulcers, and amputations. Checking your feet regularly is important to pick up on nerve damage early.89

Skin and Mouth Conditions

Diabetes makes you more likely to get skin and mouth issues. About a third of diabetes patients will have a skin problem at some point.89

Hearing Impairment

Having diabetes raises the risk of hearing issues. It’s likely due to how high blood sugars affect the ears.8


Diabetes could increase your risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. People with the condition face a higher chance than those without it.8

To avoid or delay these problems, it’s crucial to control your blood sugar level. Keeping track of blood sugar, along with blood pressure and fats, can lower your risk. By managing diabetes, not smoking, eating well, staying active, seeing the doctor often, and being aware of potential health risks, you can protect yourself.8


Causes of Diabetes

Diabetes comes in two main types, each with unique causes. In type 2 diabetes, the body’s cells don’t respond well to insulin and the pancreas doesn’t make enough.1 This leads to high blood sugar levels.

What causes these problems in type 2 isn’t completely clear. But, being overweight, not being active, and having family history are big factors.1 Type 1 diabetes, on the other hand, happens when the body attacks its own insulin-making cells. No one is entirely sure why this happens.1

Diabetes has both genetic and lifestyle roots.101 It’s key to know the causes to fight and manage diabetes better.

Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes

Stoppping type 2 diabetes is key for a healthy life. Actively making healthy lifestyle changes cuts your risk of getting this condition.21112

Healthy Diet

Eating healthy helps fight off type 2 diabetes. A diet full of fruits, veggies, and whole grains is vital. It’s also key to pick foods that are low in fat and calories. This can help you manage your weight and get more sensitive to insulin.11

Regular Exercise

Being active often stops type 2 diabetes. Do around 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week, like fast walking. This can keep your weight in check and make you more sensitive to insulin.11 Add in some strength training 2-3 times a week to boost your muscles and coordination, making diabetes risk even lower.11

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Weight Management

Maintain a healthy weight or lose 5-7% of your body weight to cut type 2 diabetes risk.1112 Keeping a balanced diet and staying active can help you reach and stay at a healthy weight. This is a big shield against diabetes.

Avoid Sedentary Lifestyle

Don’t stay inactive for long periods to avoid type 2 diabetes.2 Being regular with exercise not only keeps your weight and insulin action in check, but also cuts your diabetes risk.

Medication for Prediabetes

If you have prediabetes, you might get metformin to help avoid type 2 diabetes. This is on top of changing how you live.12 Getting checked often and acting early can stop type 2 diabetes from happening.

Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes happens during pregnancy. Most women with it have healthy babies. But, high blood sugar without treatment can harm both the baby and the mother.13

Complications in the Baby

The baby might grow too big, making birth hard. They can have low blood sugar and face higher chances of obesity and type 2 diabetes later.13

Complications in the Mother

Moms risk getting preeclampsia with high blood pressure and too much protein in their urine. They’re also more likely to have gestational diabetes in their future pregnancies.13

14Between 3 to 8% of pregnant women in the U.S. get gestational diabetes.14 Being over 25 raises the risk. Certain ethnicities also face more risk. After pregnancy, all women with gestational diabetes should be checked for diabetes often.14

14Mothers with gestational diabetes might have babies with low calcium or magnesium. The babies can also have macrosomia and hypoglycemia.14

13Being overweight before pregnancy can make you more likely to get it.13 Other risks are not being active, having prediabetes, or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. A family history of diabetes, big babies, and certain ethnic backgrounds also increase the risk. Having gestational diabetes can lead to many problems, including a greater need for C-sections.13

It can cause excessive birth weight, early births, and breathing issues. It also raises risks for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and stillbirth. Moms with gestational diabetes may face high blood pressure, preeclampsia, and an increased risk of diabetes later.13

13Eating well, staying active, and being at a healthy weight when you get pregnant can help prevent it.13

Prevention of Gestational Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes can’t be stopped. But, the same healthy choices that help prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes can prevent gestational diabetes too1315. This means eating well, staying active regularly, and watching how much you gain weight when pregnant.16

For women who are overweight or obese, not changing their diet raised their gestational diabetes risk to 16%. Those who did change lowered their risk to 6%.16 Women who were too thin before should gain between 12.5 and 18 kilograms. Those of normal weight should aim for 11.5 to 16 kilograms.16 Overweight women need to gain 7 to 11.5 kilograms, and obese women should try for 5 to 9 kilograms.16

By following these steps, women can lower their risk of gestational diabetes and its dangers for them and their baby1315. Doing 30 minutes of strong activity three to four days a week can also cut the gestational diabetes risk.16


Prediabetes is a health condition where your blood sugar is elevated but not yet at diabetic levels.17 It’s a warning sign for potential type 2 diabetes.17 But, the good news is you can turn it around with the right lifestyle changes.1819

Risk factors for prediabetes and its progression to diabetes include being overweight, having a family history of diabetes, age over 45, and certain ethnic backgrounds.18 Currently, in the U.S., over 84 million adults have prediabetes, which is about 1 in 3 adults.19 And, if you have prediabetes, you’re already halfway there to diabetes over the next 5 to 10 years.19

Some health issues linked with prediabetes are sleep apnea, fatty liver, and PCOS.18 Signs pointing to insulin resistance can include a large waistline, dark spots on the skin, and high blood pressure.18

To beat insulin resistance and prevent diabetes, lifestyle changes and possibly medication can help.18 A healthier lifestyle, with good diet and exercise, is key.17 Eat plenty of fruits, veggies, nuts, and lean meats.18 Be active every day to make your body respond better to insulin.

The DPP found that losing weight and getting active can really lower your diabetes risk.19 Just losing 10 to 14 pounds if you weigh 200 pounds does wonders.19

Prediabetes Diagnostic CriteriaRange
A1C5.7 to 6.4 percent
Fasting Plasma Glucose (FPG)100 to 125 mg/dL
Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT)140 to 199 mg/dL

The A1C test tells if you have prediabetes, with scores between 5.7 to 6.4 percent.19 Most of the time, prediabetes doesn’t show any symptoms.17 But, if you’re not careful and ignore it, you could end up with diabetes.17

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It’s possible to cut your diabetes risk by 58% with the right lifestyle changes.17 Metformin can also help stall diabetes, especially for some groups at higher risk.19

In the end, prediabetes is a big issue affecting many adults in the U.S.19 By changing your diet, being more active, and losing weight, you can lower your diabetes risk significantly.181917

Types of Diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes happens when the body mistakenly attacks the pancreas. The immune system kills off cells that make insulin. This means the body can’t control blood sugar without help. It often appears in childhood or the teenage years.10

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is more common. It comes from the body not using insulin well and not making enough. Things like being too heavy, not moving enough, and family history can play a part. It’s seen a lot in older folks but is now showing up more in the young. This change is mostly because of not staying active and being too heavy. In the U.S., Type 2 diabetes makes up most cases of diabetes.3


This article shared a lot about diabetes. We talked about what causes it and who is more likely to get it. There are two main types, type 1 and type 2, and other forms like prediabetes and gestational diabetes.20 We also looked at how dangerous it can be if not managed well. By making changes, like being active and taking medicine if needed, we can prevent or control diabetes.21

Diabetes needs a team effort to deal with. The person with diabetes, their family, and a skilled care team all play important roles.20 Companies like VSP Vision Care team up to help with eye care for those with diabetes. They work to make sure people get the best help.20

More and more people are getting diabetes around the world.21 It’s important for everyone to know what they can do to stay healthy. This includes living healthily, watching their weight, and seeing a doctor if they suspect a problem. Doing these things can lower the chances of getting diabetes.


What is the prevalence of diabetes in the United States?

Around 97.6 million adults aged 18-64 and 27.2 million adults aged 65 or older have prediabetes in the U.S. Many with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes don’t know they have it.

What are the main types of diabetes?

The main types are type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, prediabetes, and gestational diabetes, as per the third source.

What are the non-modifiable risk factors for type 2 diabetes?

The first source says non-modifiable risk factors for type 2 diabetes include family history, race, age, and a past of gestational diabetes.

What are the modifiable risk factors for type 2 diabetes?

The first source lists modifiable risk factors for type 2 diabetes. These can be changed through lifestyle. They include being overweight, physical inactivity, untreated high blood pressure, and smoking.

What are the primary causes of type 2 diabetes?

The second source says there are two main causes: insulin resistance and a lack of enough insulin produced by the pancreas. This leads to high blood sugar levels.

What are the key risk factors for type 2 diabetes?

The second and third sources mention several risk factors for type 2 diabetes. These include obesity, lack of exercise, family history, and certain health conditions. Age and race also play a role.

What are the serious complications associated with uncontrolled diabetes?

Excessive diabetes rate is linked with heart and blood vessel issues, nerve and kidney damage, bad eyesight, foot and skin problems, hearing loss, and a high chance of dementia.

How can type 2 diabetes be prevented?

Source one and three suggest several ways to prevent type 2 diabetes. This includes eating healthily, staying active, and keeping a healthy weight. For those at risk, medications like metformin might be advised.

What are the complications associated with gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes can lead to issues for both the baby, like excessive growth, and for the mother, including preeclampsia and a higher risk of diabetes in future pregnancies.

How can gestational diabetes be prevented?

The third source notes that eating well, staying active, and watching weight gain during pregnancy reduces the risk of gestational diabetes.

What is prediabetes, and how is it related to type 2 diabetes?

Prediabetes is when blood sugar is higher than normal but not yet diabetes. It’s a warning sign for type 2 diabetes, but changes in lifestyle can often stop it from developing.

What is the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes?

The third source explains that type 1 diabetes results from the body attacking insulin-making pancreas cells. Type 2 diabetes happens mainly because the body can’t use insulin well or doesn’t make enough.

Source Links

  1. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/symptoms-causes
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/type-2-diabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20351193
  3. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/what-is-diabetes
  4. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/diabetes/understand-your-risk-for-diabetes
  5. https://www.counterweight.org/blogs/articles/modifiable-and-non-modifiable-risk-factors-for-type-2-diabetes
  6. https://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/diabetes-risk/
  7. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/risk-factors-type-2-diabetes
  8. https://www.diabetes.org.uk/guide-to-diabetes/complications
  9. https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/diabetes-complications
  10. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20371444
  11. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/type-2-diabetes/in-depth/diabetes-prevention/art-20047639
  12. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-type-2-diabetes
  13. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gestational-diabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20355339
  14. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/diabetes/gestational-diabetes
  15. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/about/gestational-diabetes.html
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441575/
  17. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/diabetes/prediabetes
  18. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prediabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20355278
  19. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/what-is-diabetes/prediabetes-insulin-resistance
  20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK582430/
  21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7791288/