What’s the Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body stops producing insulin, while type 2 diabetes usually occurs due to decreased insulin efficiency.
More than 10 percent of the population in the United States is estimated to suffer from diabetes, a medical condition in which your body cannot properly manage its blood glucose levels because of disrupted insulin function.
There are two main types of diabetes, but what’s the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes?
What Are the Different Types of Diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic medical condition that influences the way that your body manages the amount of glucose, or sugar, in your blood. Your body needs to maintain a certain amount of glucose in the bloodstream to fuel its cells' activities, but having too much or too little glucose in your blood is dangerous.
People with diabetes can experience chronically high blood sugar levels or dangerously low blood sugar levels, depending on the type of diabetes they have. There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Both types of diabetes can cause high blood sugar, but for different reasons.
Each type of diabetes differs in how the body manages a hormone called insulin.
People with type 1 diabetes, also sometimes referred to as insulin-dependent diabetes or juvenile-onset diabetes, do not produce insulin at all, so their bodies cannot regulate blood sugar on their own.
People with type 2 diabetes do not respond to insulin the way they should, and may no longer make enough insulin as the disease progresses.
Regardless of whether a person deals with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, they can experience similar symptoms, including:
- Frequent urination
- Intense bouts of hunger
- Blurred vision
- Intense feelings of thirst and drinking excessively
- Extreme fatigue
- Cuts and sores that don’t heal properly or heal very slowly
- Unintentional weight loss
- Mood changes
- Numbness and tingling in the nerves of the hands or feet, known as diabetic neuropathy (neuropathy meaning “nerve damage”)
How Do Symptoms Differ Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?
While the symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes may be similar, their presentation is often different.
People with type 1 diabetes typically experience a rapid onset of symptoms, often over just a few weeks. Symptoms most frequently occur in childhood or adolescence when the condition develops but may also appear later in life if the body loses its ability to produce insulin in adulthood.
By contrast, people with type 2 diabetes may not have symptoms for many years, as their bodies are still functioning normally enough to mask the presence of the disease.
Symptoms often gradually develop and may not be evident until the patient experiences a complication of the disease, such as kidney failure, blindness, or increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, or high cholesterol.
What Causes Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?
One of the most significant differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes is the origin of each.
Type 1 Diabetes
Patients with type 1 diabetes have an autoimmune disorder that prevents them from being able to produce any insulin.
Autoimmune disorders are diseases that occur when the body’s immune system mistakes its own healthy cells for foreign cells and starts to attack them. In people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks and destroys the cells in the pancreas that are responsible for producing insulin, known as beta cells. Without the beta cells, the body is not able to produce its own insulin and cannot regulate its blood sugar.
No one knows why some people experience autoimmune disorders while others do not. Scientists are currently examining genetic and environmental links that contribute to the onset of different autoimmune disorders, including type 1 diabetes.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is not caused by an autoimmune disorder. People with type 2 diabetes are still able to produce insulin, but the body becomes resistant to it and is unable to use it effectively. As a result, the body cannot properly regulate its blood sugar.
Over time, the pancreas may try to compensate for the insulin resistance by producing more insulin, but the body is still not able to use it effectively.
Like type 1 diabetes, researchers are not sure why some people develop type 2 diabetes and others do not. However, there are some known risk factors, including low activity levels, being overweight, and having certain other medical conditions that can contribute, such as polycystic ovary syndrome.
What Are the Risk Factors for Diabetes?
As noted above, researchers are not entirely sure what causes some people to develop diabetes while others do not. However, there are some known risk factors for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Type 1 Diabetes
Known risk factors for type 1 diabetes include:
- Age: Children and adolescents are more likely to develop type 1 diabetes, although the condition can appear at any age
- Genetics: Having certain genes may increase your risk of developing type 1 diabetes during your lifetime
- Family history: Having a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes increases your risk of experiencing the condition
- Location: Type 1 diabetes is more common the farther you are from the equator
Type 2 Diabetes
While the risk factors of type 1 diabetes are largely outside of your control, patients do have the ability to control many of the risk factors for type 2 diabetes.
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include:
- Having elevated blood sugar levels or having been diagnosed with prediabetes
- Carrying excess belly fat
- Being over the age of 45
- Having given birth to a baby weighing over 9 pounds
- Having an immediate family member with the condition
- Being considered overweight or obese
- Engaging in little physical activity
- Having previously had a condition called gestational diabetes, which occurs during pregnancy
- Being African American, Indigenous American, Hispanic, or Indian Asian American
- Having a medical condition called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is known to contribute to insulin resistance
Which Type of Diabetes Is Most Common?
While type 1 diabetes is arguably more well-known than type 2 diabetes due to its autoimmune nature, type 2 diabetes is far more common.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 37.3 million Americans have diabetes in 2022, or about 10.5 percent of the U.S. population. Of these individuals, about 5 to 10 percent have type 1 diabetes, while the remainder suffer from type 2 diabetes.
Age is one of the biggest factors that influence the prevalence of diabetes. While an estimated 25 out of 10,000 Americans under the age of 20 were diagnosed with diabetes in 2018, nearly 27 people out of every 100 individuals over the age of 65 experienced the condition. Older people are considerably more likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes, while younger people are more likely to have type 1 diabetes.
How Is Diabetes Diagnosed?
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are diagnosed using a blood test called the A1C, or glycated hemoglobin, test. This test can measure the average level of your blood sugar over the course of the past several months. The A1C test is used both for the diagnosis of the disease and also the management of diabetes, as a high A1C indicates that your blood sugar is not under healthy control.
The test results of the A1C are provided as a percentage of blood glucose. An A1C result of 6.5 percent or higher indicates that a patient has diabetes or is not currently controlling their blood sugar. The test can be administered by either drawing blood or with a finger prick. Patients at home may also test their blood sugar in order to determine how the condition is being managed.
How Are Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Treated?
Your treatment for diabetes will vary depending on which type of diabetes you have.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is currently incurable. Because the body does not produce insulin, a hormone that is essential for survival, insulin must be injected into the body.
Some people choose to take insulin injections, which must be given several times per day in order to help regulate blood sugar. Others use insulin pumps, which supply a consistent level of insulin throughout the day via a small tube directly attached to the body.
In addition to receiving injections of insulin, people with type 1 diabetes must also regularly test their blood sugar, as very high or very low levels can be extremely dangerous and even fatal.
Type 2 Diabetes
Because type 2 diabetes occurs as a result of insulin resistance, it can often be managed and sometimes even cured.
For people in the early stages of type 2 diabetes who exhibit lifestyle risk factors such as low activity levels, carrying excess weight, or eating an unhealthy diet, it may be possible to manage or even reverse type 2 diabetes through healthy lifestyle changes. Other people may need to use medications to help the body respond to insulin or may require insulin injections.
Like type 1 diabetes, people with type 2 diabetes must also check their blood sugar levels. Your Provider will tell you how often to check your blood sugar based on your current levels and your current management plan.
The Bottom Line
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body stops producing insulin, while type 2 diabetes occurs as a result of insulin resistance. Type 1 diabetes is considered an autoimmune disorder that must be managed through insulin injections, while type 2 diabetes can often be managed through lifestyle changes such as a healthy diet and more exercise. Both types of diabetes have the potential to cause dangerously high blood sugar levels unless they are properly managed.
If you suspect you may be experiencing symptoms of diabetes, consult with your Healthcare Provider for additional guidance.
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