Type 2 diabetes: from old age diabetes to common lifestyle disease

Type 2 diabetes is a growing epidemic in today’s society. More and more people under the age of 40 are being affected. The biggest risk factors are lack of exercise and being overweight.

Text: Helwi Braunmiller; photo: iStock

Diabetes mellitus type 2 was known until relatively recently as adult-onset diabetes. However, the patient group has long since expanded beyond the elderly, and the proportion of younger patients is on the rise. Being overweight is one of the main causes.

Today, nine out of ten people diagnosed with diabetes have type 2. In Switzerland, this is more than 400,000 people.

What causes type 2 diabetes?

Our bodies strive constantly to absorb energy from the food we eat. Insulin plays a key role in this process. It acts as the “door opener”, enabling muscle and fat tissue cells to absorb sugar (carbohydrates). With type 2 diabetes, these cells respond less and less well to insulin and become insulin-resistant. As a result, less sugar is transported from the blood into the cells. The pancreas tries to counteract this by releasing more insulin to filter sugar from the blood. But if this reaction doesn’t have the effect of actually lowering the blood sugar levels, type 2 diabetes occurs – increased blood sugar levels.

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes: gradual worsening

The progression of type 2 diabetes is slow and it tends to go unnoticed for a long time. Very often it remains symptom-free for a long time. A diagnosis is only made when complications arise – poorly healing wounds that are susceptible to infection, sensory disturbances in the feet or legs or impaired vision, for example. This is because permanently elevated blood sugar levels damage nerves and blood vessels, particularly the kidneys, nerves and eyes. That’s why it’s all the more important to act quickly and to take the following symptoms seriously and have them checked out by a doctor:

  • Strong thirst
  • Increased urge to urinate (also at night)
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Blurred vision

Diagnosis: Do I have type 2 diabetes?

Before going to the doctor, you can determine your risk of diabetes free of charge online (available in German, French and Italian).

At the doctor’s surgery, diabetes can be detected by a simple blood sugar test in which the doctor takes some blood from the vein. If the results are unclear, an additional glucose tolerance test can provide more information. In this case, the patient mustn’t eat anything for 10 to 16 hours before the test and must eat a carbohydrate-rich diet for three days beforehand. At the doctor’s surgery you have to drink a precisely defined glucose solution. A blood test is then performed to see how high your blood sugar levels rise.

Preventing and treating type 2 diabetes

The good news is that, by changing your lifestyle, type 2 diabetes can in many cases be controlled so effectively in its early stages that medication is no longer necessary. A British study conducted in 2017 showed that almost half of all participants with type 2 diabetes were able to significantly reduce their blood sugar levels within a year by reducing their calorie intake and following nutritional advice. In fact, 86% of study participants who were able to lose 15 kg or more and maintain this weight achieved remission.

Factors that have a positive impact on blood sugar levels:

  • A lot of sport and exercise
  • Losing weight
  • A balanced diet: This includes not only healthy eating (avoiding ready meals) but also – and this is often forgotten – healthy, sugar-free drinks such as water or unsweetened tea. 

At an advanced stage, insulin production can stop completely. Then, as with type 1 diabetes, patients have to inject insulin, because insulin resistance has turned into insulin deficiency. The limit values according to diabetesschweiz.ch apply. It is important to seek advice from a doctor and support from a diabetes specialist.

How does type 2 diabetes differ from type 1?

Unlike type 2 diabetes, type 1 is caused by an autoimmune disease through which the body’s own defence mechanisms erroneously attack and destroy the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

With type 1 diabetes, insulin is no longer produced, which means that diabetics need to supply their body with insulin for the rest of their lives, and they often fall ill in childhood. With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas usually continues to secrete insulin, but the body’s cells gradually respond less and less to the insulin and consequently absorb less and less sugar from the blood. At the onset of type 2 diabetes, a lifestyle change can reverse the disease and normalise the levels – this is impossible with type 1 diabetes.