Diabetes is a chronic health condition that may require lifelong treatment. Some cases of diabetes are preventable. For example, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

In this article, we explain when diabetes might be preventable and list some steps that people can take to reduce their risk of developing this disease. We also note the symptoms of diabetes and explain when to speak with a doctor.

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Diabetes is a widespread problem in the United States. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), more than 34 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, and there are about 1.5 million new cases each year.

Reducing the prevalence of diabetes is an important public health goal. Prevention is key to reducing prevalence, but some types of diabetes are more preventable than others.

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Both can cause similar symptoms and complications. However, their causes are different, and this affects how easy they are to prevent.

Type 1

According to the ADA, there are two main factors in the development of type 1 diabetes: genetics and environmental triggers.

The genetic traits that predispose someone to type 1 diabetes can pass down from parents to children. However, environmental factors sometimes play a role by triggering the onset of the disease.

It is still unclear what environmental triggers are necessary for type 1 diabetes to develop, but they may include:

  • viruses
  • cold environments, with more cases developing in the winter
  • early life dietary factors, such as the age of switching to solid foods

A 2018 review paper suggests that identifying these environmental triggers is vital for preventing type 1 diabetes. The authors note that the identification of these risk factors would justify the screening of children for type 1 diabetes.

For example, doctors could identify babies with genetic traits that increase their risk of type 1 diabetes. Reducing their exposure to the known environmental triggers could potentially prevent the condition from developing.

There is currently no reliable method of preventing type 1 diabetes, but researchers are working on ways to address this issue.

Type 2

According to the ADA, genetics and lifestyle factors play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes. They say that a family history of the disease could be an even stronger risk indicator for type 2 diabetes than it is for type 1 diabetes.

However, lifestyle factors can also influence the development of type 2 diabetes.

The ADA suggest that having excess body weight is a significant risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. Eating an unhealthy diet and being physically inactive also increase the risk.

It can be difficult to know what causes some cases of type 2 diabetes. However, a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors is likely to play a role in the majority of cases.

Changing the lifestyle factors that increase the risk of type 2 diabetes is often possible. A 2018 review highlights the importance of lifestyle interventions for preventing this condition.

People can take several steps to prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) suggest:

  • working out or engaging in moderate intensity physical activity for 30 minutes on at least 5 days of the week
  • eating smaller portions to consume fewer calories
  • eating plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • avoiding refined sugars, highly processed foods, and sugar-sweetened drinks
  • reaching or maintaining a moderate body weight

A 2018 review highlights the importance of a healthy diet and regular physical activity. The authors recommend that people set realistic goals and join support groups to get help achieving them.

Another 2018 review suggests that some medications, such as metformin, can help prevent type 2 diabetes in people at risk of the condition. The authors state that people with a body mass index (BMI) above 35 and those with a history of gestational diabetes may benefit from these medications.

However, taking medications to prevent diabetes is only a short-term option. Most people will still need to make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk.

The ADA provide a tool that people can use to self-assess their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The tool will give a person a rough idea of their risk, but a doctor will be able to provide a more accurate assessment.

Diabetes can cause several signs and symptoms, most of which are the same for types 1 and 2 diabetes.

According to the NIDDK, type 1 diabetes symptoms tend to emerge quickly. Conversely, type 2 diabetes can cause symptoms that go unnoticed until they lead to complications. Some common symptoms of diabetes include:

  • blurry vision
  • excessive urination
  • increased thirst
  • slow wound healing
  • numb or tingling feet or hands
  • fatigue
  • unexplained weight changes
  • increased appetite

People with risk factors for type 2 diabetes, such as excess body weight or a family history of the condition, should consult a doctor about how to minimize their risk of developing the disease.

A doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, support groups, or, in some cases, medications. They can assess a person’s individual risk and make personalized suggestions on how to reduce it.

Lifestyle interventions can help prevent type 2 diabetes in some cases. These lifestyle changes might include losing weight, following a healthy diet, and engaging in regular exercise.

Currently, there are no reliable methods of preventing type 1 diabetes. However, research is ongoing to identify avoidable environmental triggers that might contribute to the condition.

Anyone at risk of developing diabetes should talk with their doctor to determine whether additional preventive steps are necessary.