Is Diabetes Genetic?
The moment a person is diagnosed with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes the questions begin flooding into the brain. How did this happen? Did I do something wrong that led to my diabetes? Will my children develop diabetes? Are other members of my family at risk? Why is this happening to me?
First of all, if you find yourself in this situation, please know that you are not alone. Everyone living with diabetes has at one time or another pondered the “how’s and why’s” of the disease. In fact, that’s why we created this post.
Let’s take a look at both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes and examine the reasons they develop, including genetic predispositions to diabetes.
What causes diabetes?
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), though there are major differences between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, both forms of the disease share two important factors.
One, a person inherits certain predispositions to both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
Two, something in the environment must trigger diabetes before it can develop.
So, there you have it. Your individual genetics absolutely do play a role in whether or not you will develop diabetes. However, genes alone aren’t enough. Something occurs externally that jump starts the disease. Now, let’s look at the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes as they relate to genetics.
Type 1 diabetes and genetics
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks and destroys the insulin producing beta cells of the pancreas. Insulin is the hormone the body needs to process blood sugar and turn it into energy, therefore, when the beta cells are destroyed sugar builds up in the bloodstream leading to a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis.
Why some people develop Type 1 diabetes and others do not, starts with genetics. Specifically, the HLA genes of the body, which make proteins your immune system harnesses to keep the body healthy. The thing is there are thousands of HLA genes in the human gene pool. Some protect you from developing diabetes. Others are prone to attacking the beta cells of the pancreas, leading to Type 1 diabetes.
So, which HLA genes you inherit from your parents plays a big role in whether or not you’re predisposed to Type 1 diabetes. However, there are other factors that trigger the disease.
The vast majority of people with Type 1 diabetes are white, so can we assume there is a connection between race and genetic predisposition? Type 1 diabetes is also more common in colder climates, so there’s a belief that this environmental factor may be a trigger. It’s also widely believed that certain viruses and how an individual reacts to them may be the greatest trigger of all for Type 1 diabetes. An illness that has a mild effect on one person, may very well be the spark that ignites the development of Type 1 diabetes in another.
One thing is certain – genetics is only part of the story. In fact, the ADA uses an interesting example, pointing out that among identical twins, it’s common that one develops the disease, while the other does not.
What about my kids?
If you’re a man with Type 1 diabetes, the odds of your child developing the disease are only 1 in 17. If you’re a woman and you gave birth after the age of 25, your child’s risk is only 1 in 100. If you gave birth before the age of 25, the risk is still just 1 in 25.
However, it’s important to note that if you developed diabetes before the age of 11, your child’s risk is doubled, and if both you and your partner have diabetes, the risk for your child can be as high as 1 in 4. Both these last two statistics are strong indicators of genetic factors.
To wrap things up, yes, there’s a link between genetics and Type 1 diabetes, but genetics are not the sole determining factor as to whether or not a person will develop the disease.
Type 2 diabetes and genetics
According to the ADA, Type 2 diabetes presents a much stronger link to family history and genetics than Type 1. In fact, studies of identical twins like the example mentioned above show that genetics play a key role in the development of Type 2 diabetes. When one develops the disease, the other usually does, too.
Additionally, there is a higher prevalence of Type 2 diabetes among certain ethnic groups, including African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and Pacific Islander. This certainly points to genetic factors at play. However, more data needs to be compiled as other determinants, such as disparities in income, access to healthcare, availability of healthy food, and other social factors are likely also contributing factors.
As with Type 1, something external needs to kick diabetes into developing. In the case of Type 2 diabetes, this is most often in the form “epigenetic” factors. Epigenetics is the process by which genes are switched on or off when they interact with the environment. In cases of Type 2 diabetes, the factors that switch on the disease are almost always related to lifestyle choices – obesity, poor eating habits (too many sugars and carbohydrates), and a lack of physical activity.
This is actually good news. Because genetics certainly contribute to Type 2 diabetes, so do many things that you directly control – what you eat, your weight, and how much activity you get in each week. In other words, there may be a stronger link between family history and Type 2 diabetes, but there are also more ways you get to control the narrative.
What about my kids?
Type 2 diabetes tends to run in families. Part of this is due to genetic predisposition, and part is because children tend to carry on the bad dietary and lifestyle habits of their parents. If you have Type 2 diabetes and have struggled with your weight and fitness level, encourage your kids to be different by offering them healthy food choices and making sure they maintain a healthy weight. As far as stats go, here they are:
If one parent has Type 2 diabetes, there’s a 40% chance a child will develop it at some point.
If both parents have Type 2 diabetes, there’s a 70% lifetime risk of developing the disease.
The good news is Type 2 diabetes can be delayed, and in some cases even prevented, when the right habits are instilled early in life.
If you have diabetes, there is no question that genetics played some role in its development. In cases of Type 1 diabetes, environmental factors well beyond a person’s control, such as a virus, may trigger those genetic predispositions. In cases of Type 2 diabetes, a family history coupled with unhealthy lifestyle choices likely work together in the development of the disease.
However, just because a person has genetic markers doesn’t mean that person will develop diabetes. Science remains unsure as to exactly why some people develop the disease and others don’t. However, there is little doubt that both genetics and at least one environmental trigger are responsible.
We hope you found this post helpful. At Diabetic Warehouse, we’re committed to keeping you informed and helping you improve blood sugar control. Shop our online selection of diabetic supplies and equipment to find prices up to 65% less than local pharmacies and other suppliers.
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