How did I get diabetes? Why did I get it? If I have diabetes, what are the chances that my children will get it, too?

If you've been recently diagnosed with diabetes, these questions are probably cascading through your mind, and the fear of the unknown might be setting in. Rest assured that research into genetic and environmental risk factors is ongoing, and new answers are being discovered all the time.

We live in the era of the Human Genome Project, an effort to identify the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes of the human genome from both a physical and functional standpoint. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) played a major role in this project, and this same organization has provided several studies and findings regarding the genetics of diabetes. 

Is there a genetic link for diabetes? The simple answer is: yes, there are genes that have been identified as important genetic risk factors. About 18 regions of the genome have been linked with influencing type 1 diabetes risk, and many genes are thought to play a role in the risk for type 2 diabetes. But it is important to remember that the genes alone do not account for the disease. Environmental factors figure largely, especially in the case of type 2 diabetes, where the genes remain poorly defined. 

What are the Chances?
The statistics provided by the NIH look like this: 

  • If you are a man with type 1 diabetes, your child has roughly a 1 in 17 chance of developing the disease. 
  • If you are a woman with type 1 diabetes and you have had your child before you turn 25 years old, your child has a 1 in 25 chance, and if you have the child after 25 year of age, they have a 1 in 100 chance. 
  • If you are a man or woman diagnosed with type 2 diabetes before the age of 50, your child has a 1 in 7 chance of developing type 2 diabetes, and if you are diagnosed after the age of 50, they have a 1 in 13 chance. 
  • If both parents have type 2 diabetes, you have a 1 in 2 chance of developing the disease.

How Do You Know?
One method of finding the diabetes susceptibility genes is through whole-genome linkage studies. The entire genome of affected family members is scanned, and the families are followed over several generations and/or large numbers of affected sibling pairs are studied. Associations between parts of the genome and the risk of developing diabetes are looked for.

Environmental factors are stressed in all of these studies, whether it be type 1 or type 2 diabetes. The link between type 2 diabetes and obesity makes the consideration of environmental factors even more poignant. This is key; you can't choose your genes, but you can choose your lifestyle. Half of the battle is in your control, and with a proper diet plan and exercise regimen, you may be able to stave off the onset of the disease. Work with your diabetes educator and dietician in order to develop a comprehensive plan of attack in order to manage the disease and reverse its progress. 

Remember, ongoing research and advancements will continue to shed light on the genetic components of diabetes. In the meantime, remember to keep tight controls around your blood glucose levels to help you enjoy a healthy, fruitful life.