Diabetes Risk Factors

Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN | Published on December 22, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on December 22, 2014

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition that affects the body’s ability to use blood sugar for energy. The three types are type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes.

Doctors usually diagnose type 1 diabetes in childhood. Type 1 diabetes affects the body’s ability to produce insulin. This hormone is vital to helping the body utilize blood sugar. Without enough insulin, the extra blood sugar can damage the body. According to the American Diabetes Association, 5 percent of all people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is a condition that affects a body’s ability to use insulin properly. Unlike type 1 diabetes, people with type 2 diabetes make some insulin, but they cannot make enough to keep up with rising blood sugar levels. Doctors associate type 2 diabetes with lifestyle-related factors like obesity.

Gestational diabetes is a condition that causes women to have very high blood sugar levels during pregnancy. This condition is typically temporary.

Having risk factors does not mean that someone will get diabetes.

What Genetic Factors Affect Diabetes Risk?

Doctors don’t know the exact cause of type 1 diabetes. Family history of type 1 diabetes is considered a risk factor. According to the American Diabetes Association, a man with type 1 diabetes has a 1 in 17 risk for a child developing type 1 diabetes. If a woman has type 1 diabetes, her child has a 1 in 25 risk if the child was born when the woman was younger than 25. Women with type 1 diabetes who give birth at age 25 or older have a 1 in 100 risk of giving birth to a child with type 1 diabetes.

Having a parent with type 2 diabetes also increases diabetes risk. Because diabetes is often related to lifestyle choices, parents may pass on poor health habits to their children. This increases risk for getting types 2 diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, a child with both parents that have type 2 diabetes has a 1 in 2 chance of getting type 2 diabetes. Children with one parent that has type 2 diabetes diagnosed before age 50 has a 1 in 7 chance of getting diabetes.

People of certain ethnicities are also at higher risk for type 2 diabetes. This includes:

  • African Americans
  • American Indians
  • Asian Americans
  • Pacific Islanders
  • Hispanic Americans/Latinos

Women have an increased risk for gestational diabetes if they have a close family member who has diabetes.

What Environmental Factors Affect Diabetes Risk?

A virus (type unknown) at an early age may trigger type 1 diabetes in some individuals. People are also more likely to have type 1 diabetes if they live in a cold climate. Doctors also diagnose patients with type 1 diabetes in the winter more often than the summer.

What Lifestyle Factors Affect Diabetes Risk?

Type 1 diabetes may have some diet-related factors. According to the American Diabetes Association, babies who were not breastfed are at an increased risk for diabetes. The same is true for babies that given solid foods at an early age.   

Type 2 diabetes is often lifestyle-related. Lifestyle factors that increase risk include:

  • obesity
  • physical inactivity
  • smoking
  • unhealthy diet

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, obesity is the single greatest risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

What Medical Conditions Affect Diabetes Risk?

People are more likely to experience type 2 diabetes if they have the following conditions:

  • acanthosis nigricans, a skin condition that makes the skin appear darker than usual
  • hypertension (high blood pressure) greater than 140/90 mmHg
  • high cholesterol greater
  • polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • prediabetes or blood sugar levels that are higher than normal, but not at diabetes levels
  • triglyceride levels that are 250 or greater

Women with gestational diabetes that give birth to a baby weighing 9 pounds or more are at greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

What Age-Related Factors Affect Diabetes Risk?

People are more likely to get diabetes as they age. According to the American Diabetes Association, an estimated 27 percent of United States citizens age 65 and older have diabetes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults ages 45 and older get a diabetes test. This is especially true if a person is overweight.

What Are Misconceptions Related to Diabetes Risk Factors?

A common misconception about diabetes is that vaccines cause diabetes. According to the CDC, there is no evidence to support this claim.

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