Health risks and the effects of diabetes

A patient tests their blood sugar levels.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 30.3 million Americans have diabetes—and about one-quarter of them don’t even know they have it. Another 84 million American adults have prediabetes.1

Are you at risk? Here’s some important information to know.

What is diabetes?

According to the National Institutes of Health, diabetes is when your blood glucose, also called blood sugar, is too high. Blood glucose is the main type of sugar found in your blood and your body’s main source of energy. Glucose comes from the food you eat and is also made in your liver and muscles. Your blood carries glucose to your body to use for energy.

The pancreas, located between your stomach and spine, is an organ that helps with digestion. It releases a hormone called insulin into your blood. Insulin helps glucose get from the blood into other parts of the body, such as your muscles or brain, to be used for energy. Sometimes your body doesn’t make enough insulin, or the insulin doesn’t work the way it should. Glucose then stays in your blood and can’t be used by your body. When your blood glucose levels get and stay too high, you have diabetes or prediabetes.

Different types of diabetes

Here are the different types of diabetes:

Type 1

Previously known as juvenile diabetes, type 1 is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. With type 1 diabetes, the body simply doesn’t produce enough insulin.

Type 2

This is the most common form of diabetes. With type 2 diabetes, the body produces too much insulin and doesn’t use the insulin properly.2

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes can occur among women around the 24th week of pregnancy. A diagnosis of gestational diabetes does not mean that you had diabetes before you conceived or that you will have diabetes after giving birth. However, it is a risk factor for getting diabetes in the future. If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes during pregnancy, it’s important to follow your doctor’s advice regarding blood glucose (blood sugar) levels.3


When a person's blood glucose is higher than normal, but not high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, he or she is diagnosed with prediabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, before people develop type 2 diabetes, they almost always have prediabetes, and recent research has shown that some long-term damage to the body, especially the heart and circulatory system, may already be occurring at this stage. Research has also shown that taking action to manage your blood glucose can delay or even prevent type 2 diabetes from developing.4

Reduce your risk

If you have diabetes, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk and help ensure a long and healthy life. In addition to your doctor and other healthcare providers, make your family and friends part of your team to help you take control of diabetes. It may seem like a lot of work, but it's worth the effort.

Here are some tips from the American Diabetes Association for managing your diabetes.

Follow your meal and medication plan

It’s very important to take any medications exactly as directed by your doctor. Work closely with your doctor and a dietitian to design a meal plan that maintains near-normal blood glucose levels. Make sure you eat meals and snacks at the same time each day, don't skip meals or snacks and keep the amount and types of food you eat (carbs, fats and proteins) consistent from day to day.

Get active

Exercise helps improve blood glucose management and makes insulin work more effectively in your body, lowering blood glucose levels. You can learn more by visiting the American Diabetes Association, opens new window.

Know your A1c (glycosylated hemoglobin level)

This is a good test to measure your blood glucose control over a period of a few months. It can also:

  • Confirm self-testing results or blood test results from your doctor
  • Help your doctor know whether a treatment plan is working
  • Show you how healthy choices can make a difference in diabetes control5

Regular eye exams

Your eye care doctor can identify and treat diabetes-related eye problems early. Retinopathy, the most common form of diabetic eye disease, may have no symptoms in its early stages, but it can lead to blindness, as diabetes can damage blood vessels in the eye. If you have diabetes, the American Diabetes Association recommends that you have an eye examination every year to ensure that your eyes are healthy.

Talk to your doctor about having your cholesterol checked

You should especially check your low-density lipoprotein or LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Talk with your doctor about ways to keep it lower than 100. For people with diabetes, excess blood sugar attaches to the bad cholesterol, so the bad cholesterol stays in the blood longer. It can build up in the blood vessels, restricting blood flow to the heart over time and increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Check your feet regularly for signs of infection

Ask your doctor to examine your feet at each visit. High blood sugar can damage the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to your legs and feet, causing poor circulation, nerve damage, foot deformities, skin breakdown and infections. Talk to your doctor immediately about healthy foot care habits and report any foot problems or changes right away.

Talk to your doctor about an annual kidney function test

The kidneys’ job is to filter and clean the blood. This produces urine, which is stored in the bladder. High levels of blood sugar are hard on kidneys. Over time, this can cause them to leak substances such as protein into your urine. Your doctor can monitor your kidney function and the protein amounts in your urine to identify and treat any problems early.

Get a flu shot every year

It is always a good idea to be vaccinated against the flu as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Talk to your doctor about a pneumonia vaccine

You can get this shot anytime during the year. Usually only one shot is needed, but another shot 5–10 years after the first may be recommended by your doctor.

Get regular blood pressure checks

The American Diabetes Association reports that nearly 1 in 3 American adults has high blood pressure, and 2 in 3 people with diabetes report having high blood pressure or take prescription medications to lower their blood pressure. To make sure your blood pressure is within a healthy range, it’s important to see your doctor and have it checked. By keeping your blood pressure within a normal range, you can delay or help to prevent a heart attack or stroke.

Quit smoking

Being a smoker and having diabetes increase the risk of death and heart problems by a full 50%.6 There are many programs to help you stop smoking. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about which program might be right for you.

Know the facts

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with diabetes, there are resources available online to help you learn more. The American Diabetes Association and the JDRF (formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) each provide a wealth of information to help patients and family members deal with this disease.

This information is for educational purposes only and does not replace treatment or advice from a healthcare professional. If you have questions, please talk with your doctor.


  1. “National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2020,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed January 12, 2020,, opens new window.
  2. “What Is Diabetes?,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, last accessed January 12, 2020,, opens new window.
  3. “Gestational Diabetes: Gestational Diabetes and a Healthy Baby? Yes,” American Diabetes Association, last accessed January 12, 2020,, opens new window.
  4. “With Prediabetes, Action Is the Best Medicine,” American Diabetes Association, last accessed January 12, 2020,, opens new window.
  5. “Understanding A1C: A1C Does It All,” American Diabetes Association, last accessed January 12, 2020,, opens new window.
  6. An Pan et al., “Relation of Smoking with Total Mortality and Cardiovascular Events Among Patients with Diabetes Mellitus: A Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review,” Circulation 132 (August 2015): 1795–1804, accessed January 12, 2020, doi:, opens new window.