Hear the words, ‘type 2 diabetes’ and what do you think? If you’re under 40, we bet our last Rolo it’s probably, ‘Phew, I don’t need to worry about that!’ But the latest stats might shock you – one in eight new cases of type 2 diabetes in the UK was diagnosed in someone aged 18-40 in 2017, compared with just one in 10 cases 17 years earlier. In other words, this condition, which causes the level of sugar (glucose) in the blood to become too high – and can lead to other serious health problems – is becoming rife in younger people. So it’s time to gen up.
First up, what’s behind this unfortunate trend? ‘There are multiple, complex factors at play, but one of the main risk factors is that more of us are overweight or obese,’ says Douglas Twenefour, a specialist dietitian and deputy head of care at Diabetes UK, a charity Boots has been working with since 2013 to support people living with and at risk of diabetes.
‘However, it’s unclear why not all people who are obese develop type 2 diabetes, and why not all people with type 2 diabetes are obese. You’re also at a heightened risk if you’re over 40 (or 25 for South Asian people), have a close relative with diabetes, or are of South Asian, Chinese, African-Caribbean or black African origin. And a factor for everyone is a tendency to store fat around the waist and abdomen, along with visceral fat, where fat surrounds the internal organs, which may trigger changes within the body.’ It could be time to curb that dirty burger obsession.
It’s serious stuff. According to Diabetes UK, one in 15 people in the UK has diabetes and 90% of these will have type 2 – often without realising it. Which is worrying, because the condition can lead to serious health issues with eyesight, nerves (usually affecting the feet, causing a loss of sensation), as well as heart disease and stroke, if blood-sugar levels aren’t controlled. All health concerns unlikely to be on the minds of most millennials.
It’s suggested that many people can have type 2 diabetes for up to 10 years before it’s diagnosed – and if you’re a twenty- or thirty-something, it might be easier to miss the symptoms. Signs such as being thirsty all the time, exhausted, and always running to the loo (see box below for more) can be gradual, so may go undetected. And there are others to be aware of. ‘People don’t always realise that more surprising symptoms, such as recurrent thrush, skin infections or unexplained weight loss, might be due to high blood-sugar levels,’ says Dr Juliet McGrattan, a health expert, former GP and author of Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide To Health (Bloomsbury Sport).
If this made you choke on your flat white, see your GP about any concerns. And if you’re over 40, book your free NHS health check. Even if you don’t have type 2 diabetes, it may be you have pre-diabetes. This is when blood-sugar levels are above the normal range, meaning your risk of developing full-blown diabetes is increased. A simple home test, such as Medichecks Diabetes Blood Test**, can advise you of your risk.
Boots has also teamed up with Diabetes UK to create this handy ‘Know Your Risk’ tool which could help you identify your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The tool considers the seven key factors to determine a person’s risk, including the factors that can’t be changed such as age, ethnicity and family history and those that can be changed, such as weight, waist circumference and blood pressure.
Making a change
The good news? ‘It’s estimated around three in five cases of type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed by maintaining a healthy weight, eating well and being active,’ says Douglas. ‘This will make it easier for your body to lower your blood-sugar level, while also improving your blood pressure and cholesterol, and reducing your risk of developing serious problems.’
A recent study found that eating more plant-based foods could slash your risk by almost a quarter. Let’s face it, a diet full of fruit and veg, legumes, nuts and wholegrains is always a good idea – and easy to do as the #plantbased trend peaks – as well as ticking the boxes for a healthy, balanced diet.
As for sugar, surely it’s something to shun? Turns out, that while type 2 diabetes is a condition where blood-sugar levels are too high, sugar does not directly cause it. ‘Diabetes is caused by the way your body handles a type of sugar in the blood called glucose, broken down from carbohydrate foods,’ says Douglas.
So if the insulin produced by the body isn’t enough, or doesn’t work properly, it can’t help take the glucose from our blood into our body’s cells (where it can be used as energy), leading to high blood-sugar levels.
You don’t need a sugar-free diet (after all, sugar is found naturally in fruit, vegetables and dairy). But sugary foods and drinks contain a lot of calories, which can make you overweight, upping your risk. So it’s about reducing your ‘free sugar’ intake (any sugar added to food or drink): think syrupy coffee, cake and booze. The NHS advises keeping added sugar under 30g a day – that’s around six teaspoons††. With a 500ml bottle of cola containing 11, it can be very easy to exceed that.
If you need help with your diet, your GP or a diabetes nurse may be able to refer you to a dietitian to help you learn more about nutritional choices.
Step it up
Exercise also gets a big thumbs-up. ‘Even without weight loss, exercising still has health benefits,’ says Dr McGrattan. ‘Research suggests exercise can act as an anti-inflammatory. It reduces the amount of visceral fat, the harmful fat around our internal organs, which causes inflammation.’
Being active keeps your blood pressure and cholesterol in check, too, reducing your risk of diabetes complications. The NHS recommends doing 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise. And, with one study finding that people at high risk of diabetes increase the risk of type 2 by 2.1% with each hour spent watching TV, it’s smart to choose that sweat sesh over the box sets.
TYPE 2 DIABETES SYMPTOM SPOTTER
● Urinating more than usual, particularly at night
● Constant thirst
● Feeling very tired
● Unexplained weight loss
● Itching around your vagina or penis
● Repeatedly getting thrush
● Slower-healing cuts or wounds
● Blurred vision
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN TYPE 1 AND TYPE 2 DIABETES
Type 1 develops when the body’s insulin-producing cells in the body have been destroyed.
What causes it? It’s nothing to do with your lifestyle or weight*. The most likely cause is when someone’s immune system attacks insulin-producing cells, possibly triggered by a virus.
How is it treated? By using insulin via regular injections or an insulin pump.
Type 2 is caused by the body not making enough insulin, or the insulin you make not working properly.
What causes it? It’s often linked to being overweight or having a large waist. Certain ethnicities are more at risk, as are those who have a relative with it.
How is it treated? Initially, it can often be controlled with a healthy diet and exercise. But the longer someone has it, the more likely it is they’ll need medication.