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Is Type 2 Diabetes Caused by Genetics?

Type 2 diabetes and genetics

Key points

  1. If both of your parents have type 2 diabetes, you have a 50 percent chance of developing the disease.
  2. Having a hereditary risk doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop the condition.
  3. If you’re at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, your doctor can help you find ways to reduce your risk.

Diabetes is a complex condition. Several factors must come together for you to develop type 2 diabetes. For example, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle play a role. Genetics can also influence whether you’ll get this disease.

If you’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, there’s a good chance that you’re not the first person with diabetes in your family. According to the American Diabetes Association, your risk of developing type 2 diabetes is:

  • 1 in 7 if one of your parents was diagnosed before the age of 50
  • 1 in 13 if one of your parents was diagnosed after the age of 50
  • 1 in 2, or 50 percent, if both your parents have diabetes

Several gene mutations have been linked to the development of type 2 diabetes. These gene mutations can interact with the environment and each other to further increase your risk.

The role of genetics in type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is caused by both genetic and environmental factors.

Scientists have linked several gene mutations to a higher diabetes risk. Not everyone who carries a mutation will get diabetes. But many people with diabetes do have one or more of these mutations.

It can be difficult to separate genetic risk from environmental risk. The latter is often influenced by your family members. For example, parents with healthy eating habits are likely to pass them on to the next generation. On the other hand, genetics plays a big part in determining weight. Sometimes behaviors can’t take all the blame.

Identifying the genes responsible for type 2 diabetes

Studies of twins suggest that type 2 diabetes might be linked to genetics. These studies were complicated by the environmental influences that also affect type 2 diabetes risk.

To date, numerous mutations have been shown to affect type 2 diabetes risk. The contribution of each gene is generally small. However, each additional mutation you have seems to increase your risk.

In general, mutations in any gene involved in controlling glucose levels can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. These include genes that control:

  • production of glucose
  • production and regulation of insulin
  • how glucose levels are sensed in the body

Genes associated with type 2 diabetes risk include:

  • TCF7L2, which affects insulin secretion and glucose production
  • ABCC8, which helps regulate insulin
  • CAPN10, which is associated with type 2 diabetes risk in Mexican-Americans
  • GLUT2, which helps move glucose into the pancreas
  • GCGR, a glucagon hormone involved in glucose regulation

Genetic testing for type 2 diabetes

Tests are available for some of the gene mutations associated with type 2 diabetes. The increased risk for any given mutation is small, however. Other factors are far more accurate predictors of whether you’ll develop type 2 diabetes, including:

Tips for prevention

The interactions between genetics and the environment make it difficult to identify a definite cause of type 2 diabetes. That doesn’t mean you can’t reduce your risk through changing your habits.

The Diabetes Prevention Program, a large study of people at high risk for diabetes, suggests that weight loss and increased physical activity can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. Blood glucose levels returned to normal levels in some cases. Other international studies have reported similar results.

Here are some things you can start doing today to reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes:

Start an exercise program

Slowly add physical activity into your daily routine. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or park further away from building entrances. You can also try going for a walk during lunch.

Once you’re ready, you can start adding light weight-training and other cardiovascular activities to your routine. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise each day. If you need ideas for how to get started, check out this list of 14 cardio exercises to get you moving.

Create a healthy meal plan

It can be hard to avoid extra carbohydrates and calories when you’re dining out. Cooking your own meals is the easiest way to make healthy choices. Come up with a weekly meal plan that includes dishes for every meal. Stock up on all the groceries you’ll need, and do some of the prep work ahead of time.

You can ease yourself into it, too. Start by planning your lunches for the week. Once you’re comfortable with that, you can plan out additional meals.

Learn more: 7-day type 2 diabetes meal plan »

Choose healthy snacks

Stock up on healthy snack options so you aren’t tempted to reach for a bag of chips or candy bar. Here are some healthy, easy-to-eat snacks you may want to try:

  • carrot sticks and hummus
  • apples, clementines, and other fruits
  • a handful of nuts, though be careful to keep an eye on serving sizes
  • air-popped popcorn, but skip adding lots of salt or butter
  • whole-grain crackers and cheese

Outlook

Knowing your risk for type 2 diabetes can help you make changes to prevent developing the condition.

Tell your doctor about your family history with type 2 diabetes. They can decide if genetic testing is right for you. They can also help you reduce your risk through lifestyle changes.

Your doctor may also want to regularly check your glucose levels. That can help them detect any blood sugar abnormalities or warning signs for type 2 diabetes earlier. Early treatment can have a positive impact on your outlook.

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