Women's Health Matters

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Medical Description

Diabetes Mellitus is the name given to a common, chronic health condition, characterized by above-normal levels of glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood. In people who do not have diabetes, a hormone called insulin regulates the amount of glucose in the blood. Diabetes occurs when there is a problem with the body's ability to make or use insulin.

Today, diabetes affects approximately five to ten percent of Canadians. About half of Canadians with diabetes are women (46 percent). Diabetes is particularly common among aboriginal peoples. Two thirds of aboriginal people with diabetes are women.

There are three main types of diabetes that may affect women:

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes was formerly known as juvenile-onset or insulin-dependent diabetes. It occurs when the beta cells in the pancreas, which are responsible for producing insulin, no longer do so. Most commonly, the actions of a person's own immune system damage the beta cells.

Type 1 diabetes usually occurs between childhood and young adulthood, but it is possible for adults of any age to develop type 1 diabetes. Less than 10 percent of people with diabetes have type 1.

Many women, when they develop diabetes, worry about whether their children will also develop the condition. In fact, statistics show that if the mother has type 1 diabetes, there is a two percent chance that her child will develop it. If the father has type 1 diabetes, the chance is six percent.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes, previously known as adult-onset or non-insulin dependent diabetes, is the more common type of diabetes. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the following conditions occur in the body:

Lack of sufficient insulin, where the beta cells in the pancreas produce some but not enough insulin in response to a meal.

Insulin resistance, a condition where the body produces insulin but is not able to use it effectively. Insulin resistance often occurs in people who also have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and who are overweight (defined as weighing more than 20 percent above normal body weight). Women with more fat around the waist, versus on the hips or thighs, have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

These conditions lead to a rise in blood glucose and the diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.

Over 90 percent of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes. It occurs most commonly in people over the age of 40 but, in recent years, type 2 diabetes has been affecting people at a younger age. In certain ethnic groups, such as aboriginal people and those of African, Oriental and Hispanic origin, type 2 diabetes may occur in childhood or adolescence.

Risk Factors

While the cause of type 2 diabetes is unknown, we do know many of the factors that put women at risk of developing it, namely:

  • family history of type 2 diabetes
  • overweight
  • over the age of 40
  • Aboriginal, Hispanic, Asian or African origin
  • high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • previous gestational diabetes (diabetes that developed during pregnancy)
  • having delivered large babies (Over 9 lbs. or 4 kg)

There is a strong hereditary link in type 2 diabetes, that is to say that it "runs" in families. If one parent has type 2 diabetes, there is approximately an 11-14 percent chance of the offspring developing type 2 diabetes in later years. If both parents have type 2 diabetes, the risk rises to about 28 percent.

Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes, known as GDM, is diabetes that occurs during pregnancy. GDM typically occurs during the latter part of pregnancy. After delivery, blood glucose usually returns to normal, but any woman who develops GDM has an added risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

In pregnancy, hormones produced by the placenta help your baby to develop, but they also affect your own insulin's ability to handle glucose. This is called insulin resistance. Most women who are pregnant are able to produce more insulin to compensate for this insulin resistance, but about 5 percent of women cannot do so. For these women, blood glucose begins to rise and gestational diabetes is diagnosed.

Risk Factors

It is true that women who are overweight are more at risk, but thin women develop gestational diabetes too, and many women who are overweight do not. Other risk factors for developing GDM include:

  • a family history of diabetes
  • being over 25 years old
  • having previously delivered a large baby
  • being of non-Caucasian heritage
  • being pregnant with more than one fetus


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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital