Signs you’re at risk of diabetes (and don’t know it)

A couple at their breakfast table

You’ve probably heard of diabetes, but what about prediabetes? The condition is a gentle wake-up call to prevent the development of type 2 diabetes – but most people don’t know they have it. Here’s what you need to know. 

The only thing better than being armed with information to help you deal with a situation is being armed with information before you need it. In a way, that’s what prediabetes is – it’s a warning system that you’re on a path towards a chronic illness. The good news is, you can get off that path with some relatively simple lifestyle changes.

Around two million Australians have prediabetes, a condition where your blood glucose levels are higher than normal. It’s a precursor to type 2 diabetes, meaning that without intervention your blood glucose levels are likely to rise further, reaching type 2 diabetes level.

“It is really common for people to not know they are prediabetic because often they have no symptoms,” explains GP Dr Michela Sorensen. “People can actually feel quite well and it is not picked up until they go to their doctor for another reason. Even if you feel fit and healthy, unmanaged prediabetes can still cause damage to your body.”

So if there are no physical symptoms of prediabetes, how can you know you’re at risk? Here are the three areas to be aware of – if you fit into these categories, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about your diabetes risk:

Family background

Having a family history of diabetes or heart disease puts you at risk of prediabetes, as does having a certain ethnic background – if you’re of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Pacific Islander, North African, Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, you have a higher risk.

Your health

If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, polycystic ovarian syndrome or you’ve had heart disease or a stroke in the past, that can boost the likelihood of prediabetes. And mothers who had gestational diabetes or gave birth to a baby more than 4.5kg need to be aware of their diabetes risk, too.

Taking some antipsychotic medications can also be a risk factor – so best have a chat to your GP if that’s you.

Your lifestyle

This is a big area of concern for doctors. People who smoke, are physically inactive, overweight or have a large waist are at risk of prediabetes. To measure your waist, place a tape measure midway between the top of your hip bone and the bottom of your ribs. Breathe out, then wrap the tape measure around your waist. The measurements to watch are:

  • Women – more than 80cm
  • Caucasian men – more than 94cm
  • Asian men – more than 90cm.

Know your diabetes risk

While prediabetes doesn’t have any signs, there are symptoms of diabetes to watch out for.

“The most common symptoms are increased thirst, increased need to pass urine and increased hunger,” Sorensen says. “People may also notice blurry vision, darker patches of skin in their underarms and numbness or pins and needles in their hands and feet.”

What should I do?

If you are concerned you might be at risk of prediabetes, Sorensen recommends you talk to your doctor. “They can help you assess your risk factors and arrange some blood tests to check your blood sugar levels,” she says.

Making lifestyle changes is also important to take control of your chronic-disease risk. That means: “Eating a well-balanced diet low in refined sugars and fats, exercising 30 minutes most days and keeping within the healthy weight range. Of course quitting smoking and keeping alcohol consumption in check is also important,” Sorensen says.