Diabetes mellitus is a group of metabolic diseases characterized by high blood sugar (glucose) levels that result from defects in insulin secretion, or its action, or both. Diabetes mellitus, commonly referred to as diabetes (as it will be in this article) was first identified as a disease associated with "sweet urine," and excessive muscle loss in the ancient world. Elevated levels of blood glucose (hyperglycemia) lead to spillage of glucose into the urine, hence the term sweet urine.
Normally, blood glucose levels are tightly controlled by insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. Insulin lowers the blood glucose level. When the blood glucose elevates (for example, after eating food), insulin is released from the pancreas to normalize the glucose level by promoting the uptake of glucose into body cells. In patients with diabetes, the absence of insufficient production of or lack of response to insulin causes hyperglycemia. Diabetes is a chronic medical condition, meaning that although it can be controlled, it lasts a lifetime.
There are two major types of diabetes, called type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes was also formerly called insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM), or juvenile-onset diabetes mellitus. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas undergoes an autoimmune attack by the body itself, and is rendered incapable of making insulin. Abnormal antibodies have been found in the majority of patients with type 1 diabetes. Antibodies are proteins in the blood that are part of the body's immune system. The patient with type 1 diabetes must rely on insulin medication for survival.
In autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakenly manufactures antibodies and inflammatory cells that are directed against and cause damage to patients' own body tissues. In persons with type 1 diabetes, the beta cells of the pancreas, which are responsible for insulin production, are attacked by the misdirected immune system. It is believed that the tendency to develop abnormal antibodies in type 1 diabetes is, in part, genetically inherited, though the details are not fully understood.
Exposure to certain viral infections (mumps and Coxsackie viruses) or other environmental toxins may serve to trigger abnormal antibody responses that cause damage to the pancreas cells where insulin is made. Some of the antibodies seen in type 1 diabetes include anti-islet cell antibodies, anti-insulin antibodies and anti-glutamic decarboxylase antibodies. These antibodies can be detected in the majority of patients, and may help determine which individuals are at risk for developing type 1 diabetes.
At present, the American Diabetes Association does not recommend general screening of the population for type 1 diabetes, though screening of high risk individuals, such as those with a first degree relative (sibling or parent) with type 1 diabetes should be encouraged. Type 1 diabetes tends to occur in young, lean individuals, usually before 30 years of age; however, older patients do present with this form of diabetes on occasion. This subgroup is referred to as latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA). LADA is a slow, progressive form of type 1 diabetes. Of all the people with diabetes, only approximately 10% have type 1 diabetes and the remaining 90% have type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes was also previously referred to as non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM), or adult-onset diabetes mellitus (AODM). In type 2 diabetes, patients can still produce insulin, but do so relatively inadequately for their body's needs, particularly in the face of insulin resistance as discussed above. In many cases this actually means the pancreas produces larger than normal quantities of insulin. A major feature of type 2 diabetes is a lack of sensitivity to insulin by the cells of the body (particularly fat and muscle cells).
In addition to the problems with an increase in insulin resistance, the release of insulin by the pancreas may also be defective and suboptimal. In fact, there is a known steady decline in beta cell production of insulin in type 2 diabetes that contributes to worsening glucose control. (This is a major factor for many patients with type 2 diabetes who ultimately require insulin therapy.) Finally, the liver in these patients continues to produce glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis despite elevated glucose levels. The control of gluconeogenesis becomes compromised.
While it is said that type 2 diabetes occurs mostly in individuals over 30 years old and the incidence increases with age, an alarming number of patients with type 2 diabetes are barely in their teen years. Most of these cases are a direct result of poor eating habits, higher body weight, and lack of exercise.
While there is a strong genetic component to developing this form of diabetes, there are other risk factors - the most significant of which is obesity. There is a direct relationship between the degree of obesity and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and this holds true in children as well as adults. It is estimated that the chance to develop diabetes doubles for every 20% increase over desirable body weight.
Regarding age, data shows that for each decade after 40 years of age regardless of weight there is an increase in incidence of diabetes. The prevalence of diabetes in persons 65 years of age and older is around 25%. Type 2 diabetes is also more common in certain ethnic groups. Compared with a 7% prevalence in non-Hispanic Caucasians, the prevalence in Asian Americans is estimated to be 8.0%, in Hispanics 13%, in blacks around 12.3%, and in certain Native American communities 20% to 50%. Finally, diabetes occurs much more frequently in women with a prior history of diabetes that develops during pregnancy (gestational diabetes).
Insufficient production of insulin (either absolutely or relative to the body's needs), production of defective insulin (which is uncommon), or the inability of cells to use insulin properly and efficiently leads to hyperglycemia and diabetes.
In type 2 diabetes, there also is a steady decline of beta cells that adds to the process of elevated blood sugars. Essentially, if someone is resistant to insulin, the body can, to some degree, increase production of insulin and overcome the level of resistance. After time, if production decreases and insulin cannot be released as vigorously, hyperglycemia develops.