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diabetes

The Disorder

The lack of insulin results in an inability to metabolize glucose, and the capacity to store glycogen (a form of glucose) in the liver and the active transport of glucose across cell membranes are impaired. The symptoms are elevated sugar levels in the urine and blood, increased urination, thirst, hunger, weakness, weight loss, and itching. Prolonged hyperglycemia (excess blood glucose) leads to increased protein and fat catabolism, a condition that can cause premature vascular degeneration and atherosclerosis (see arteriosclerosis). Uncontrolled diabetes leads to diabetic acidosis, in which ketones build up in the blood. Patients have sweet-smelling breath, and may suffer confusion, unconsciousness, and death. There are two distinct types of diabetes mellitus: insulin-dependent and noninsulin-dependent.

Insulin-dependent Diabetes

Insulin-dependent diabetes (Type I), also called juvenile-onset diabetes, is the more serious form of the disease; about 10% of diabetics have this form. It is caused by destruction of pancreatic cells that make insulin and usually develops before age 30. Type I diabetics have a genetic predisposition to the disease. There is some evidence that it is triggered by a virus that changes the pancreatic cells in a way that prompts the immune system to attack them. The symptoms are the same as in the non-insulin-dependent variant, but they develop more rapidly and with more severity. Treatment includes a diet limited in carbohydrates and saturated fat, exercise to burn glucose, and regular insulin injections, sometimes administered via a portable insulin pump. Transplantation of islet cells has also proved somewhat successful since 1999, after new transplant procedures were developed, but the number of pancreases available for extraction of the islet cells is far smaller than the number of Type I diabetics. Patients receiving a transplant must take immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of the cells, and many ultimately need to resume insulin injections, but despite that transplants provide real benefits for some whose diabetes has become difficult to control.

Noninsulin-dependent diabetes

Noninsulin-dependent diabetes (Type 2), also called adult-onset diabetes, results from the inability of the cells in the body to respond to insulin. About 90% of diabetics have this form, which is more prevalent in minorities and usually occurs after age 40. Although the cause is not completely understood, there is a genetic factor and 90% of those affected are obese. As in Type I diabetes, treatment includes exercise and weight loss and a diet low in total carbohydrates and saturated fat. Some individuals require insulin injections; many rely on oral drugs, such as sulphonylureas, metformin, acarbose or another alpha-glucosidase inhibitor, thiazolidinediones, or dipeptidyl peptidase–4 (DPP-4) inhibitors.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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