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How a diabetes risk test can save your life

Learn about diabetes risk factors, diagnosis and treatment

A woman getting her blood pressure taken by a female doctor
A woman getting her blood pressure taken by a female doctor

Diabetes has been called the epidemic of the 21st century. It’s the fastest growing chronic health condition in Australia, with one person diagnosed every five minutes.

Left untreated, diabetes increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke by up to four times, and it’s a leading cause of adult blindness, kidney failure and limb amputations.

As many people are unaware that they have diabetes, correct diagnosis and management of the condition is crucial.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes occurs when your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to maintain healthy blood glucose (sugar) levels.

Symptoms include:

  • Excessive thirst

  • Frequent urination

  • Unexplained weight loss or gain (depending on the type of diabetes you have)

  • Lethargy

  • Irritability

  • Blurred vision

  • Leg cramps

  • Itching skin and cuts that are slow to heal

What are the different types of diabetes?

There are three different types of diabetes, with rates of all variations increasing.

1. Type 1 Diabetes

In type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakenly attacks cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Because the damage is permanent, people with type 1 diabetes need daily injections of insulin for life.
Although it’s not known exactly what causes type 1 diabetes, it’s thought to be caused by hereditary factors rather than lifestyle. Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in childhood; symptoms generally come on suddenly and can be life-threatening.

2. Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes represents 85-90% of all cases of diabetes. Although it usually develops in adulthood, it is increasingly being diagnosed in younger age groups.
Type 2 diabetes is one of the major consequences of the obesity epidemic. As it’s progressive, it needs to be well managed in order to prevent complications. However, one of the dangers inherent in type 2 diabetes is that sufferers often display no symptoms until more serious health problems emerge.

3. Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy, and usually disappears after the baby is born. In Australia, all pregnant women are offered a gestational diabetes screening as part of their routine maternal health care.

A young family laugh together in the backyard with the remains of a watermelon slice sitting on a plate in front of them

How is diabetes tested and diagnosed?

Diabetes is diagnosed with a blood test, and your doctor may ask you to do further tests to confirm the diagnosis.

You can be diagnosed with a condition called pre-diabetes when your blood sugar levels are high, though not yet high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

While approximately one in three people with pre-diabetes will go on to develop type 2 diabetes, it’s possible to stop pre-diabetes developing into type 2 diabetes by losing weight and following a healthy diet.

Am I at risk of diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is typically diagnosed in children under the age of 14, however it is possible to be diagnosed later in life.

People are at a higher risk of getting type 2 diabetes if they:

  • Have a family history of type 2 diabetes

  • Are overweight

  • Don’t exercise

  • Have a poor diet

  • Have high blood pressure

  • Are over 40

  • You can assess your risk of developing type 2 diabetes using the Diabetes Australia risk calculator.

Treatment options for diabetes

There is currently no cure for diabetes, however with daily management, sufferers can lead a healthy and active life.

In all types of diabetes, the aim of treatment is to keep blood glucose as close to normal levels as possible. This is done through a combination of:

  • A healthy diet

  • Regular exercise

  • Monitoring blood sugar

  • Medication

Portrait of Elaine who lives with diabetes

“I got tested because I was so lethargic”

Elaine Staunton was in her mid-30s when she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

“I commuted an hour and a half each way to work, sat at my desk in a bank all day and was completely sedentary at home. I got tested because I was so lethargic, thirsty all the time and going to the toilet. Of course, it would have been soft drink I was drinking, not water.”

Diabetes was prevalent in Elaine’s family. Her father and brother both had type 2 diabetes. Her father had to have both legs amputated as a result, and he eventually died of diabetes-related kidney failure. Her brother has developed eye problems.

For Elaine, cutting stress was a key factor in her treatment. “The first thing we did was move so I wasn’t commuting and I was able to exercise. I had to learn how to control blood glucose and become much more aware of what I was putting in my mouth, including cutting back my serving sizes,” she says.

“When I went shopping, I was conscious of making healthy choices, not just grabbing whatever was easiest. My husband was very supportive because his lifestyle had to change as well.”

Elaine also went onto medication. “The first medication played havoc with my body, but we eventually found one that worked for me,” she says.

“I’m starting to feel better now, but it’s ongoing – you’ve just got to incorporate managing it into your life. Given my family history, I’m well aware of what can go wrong if you don’t.”

I got tested because I was so lethargic, thirsty all the time and going to the toilet

What can I do to reduce my risk of diabetes?

Currently, type 1 cannot be prevented, however a healthy lifestyle can prevent up to 58% of type 2 diabetes.

To reduce your risk of diabetes:

  • Maintain a healthy weight

  • Exercise regularly

  • Eat a balanced diet

  • Manage your blood pressure and cholesterol

  • Quit smoking

Related: 9 doctor-approved ways to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes

As Elaine knows, dramatically changing your lifestyle takes commitment. “Making those changes was desperately hard," she admits.

“But if I could, I’d tell my younger self to cut out the takeaway, cut down my portion sizes, do more exercise and, if you think you’re busy, you still have to take time to deal with your health.”

Ready to book in a diabetes risk test?

Our Find a Provider service allows you to search for health professionals like GPs in your local area.

If you’re heading to your GP for a check-up, it could be a good opportunity to find out what other examinations you might be due for.