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Women and Diabetes: A Coming Pandemic?

Yasmine Simmons, NP, The Healthiest You Weight Loss & Diabetes Prevention Center, Lee Summit, MO

Women are at special risk of developing diabetes. It can strike mothers-to-be, and even their unborn children -- and its presence elevates the risk of heart problems, according to a recent webinar co-hosted by HRSA's Office of Women's Health and Office of Regional Operations Region 7 in Kansas City, MO.

Statistics tell a stark story: Nearly one in three American women have heart trouble. And those diagnosed with diabetes are twice as likely to have a heart attack -- with three times the probability they'll die from that heart attack compared to women without diabetes.

There is also good news: sustained attention to one's diet and regular exercise can reduce and eliminate those and other serious risks, health and wellness expert Yasmine Simmons said.

Still, she said, "the development of diabetes is projected to reach pandemic proportions over the next 10-20 years."

Recent history and forecasts of what may be ahead underscore just how much prevention and treatment matter. For instance, the number of people living with diabetes has quadrupled since 1981 -- more than one in five children today have it -- and its incidence continues to rise annually. According to the International Diabetes Federation, 90 percent of likely future patients will have Type 2 diabetes. 

The condition is characterized by too much blood sugar, and affects an estimated 1 in 10 women over 20 years of age.  Further, in 2017, half of all deaths among American women older than age 50 were related to heart disease. 

Related to this, signs of heart attack in women often differ from the classic "crushing chest pain" typical in males. Instead, symptoms among women are more likely to include unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath, indigestion and feelings of anxiety – possibly beginning as much as one month prior to having a heart attack.

CDC Chart - Prediabetes - Could it be you? 86 million American adults (more than 1 out of 3) have prediabetes. 9 out of 10 people with prediabetes don't know they have it.

Women are more likely to develop diabetes if they have experienced gestational diabetes, developed during pregnancy.  The gestational form is most common among African American, Hispanic and American Indian women and those who are obese, overweight or have a family history of the disease. Among leading risk factors:

  • Women who have experienced gestational diabetes have a 20 to 50 percent chance of developing diabetes within 10 years thereafter, Simmons said;
  • There is also pre-diabetes, a condition marked by elevated blood sugar.  Without treatment, Simmons said, about 25 percent of women with the condition will in time become diabetic;
  • And racial and ethnic minority populations are at higher risk than others for Type 2 and pre-diabetes - both of which exact formidable human and social costs.

Already, the economic toll of diabetes is dramatic.  People with diagnosed diabetes, on average, have medical expenditures approximately 2.3 times higher, according to the American Diabetes Association. Moreover, diabetes care accounts for 1 in 4 health-related dollars in the U.S.

Promisingly, Simmons said, various studies suggest that "weight loss and increased physical activity among people with pre-diabetes can prevent or delay the condition and may return blood glucose levels to normal."

Read the new publication from HRSA's Office of Women's Health: Women and Diabetes Issue Brief (PDF - 429 KB).

Learn more about diabetes and women from the CDC.

Date Last Reviewed:  July 2018