Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes have serious complications that can lead to heart disease, stroke, nerve damage, even death.
If the section on the warning signs and symptoms of diabetes didn't raise your level of concern regarding diabetes, this section will. Diagnosed diabetes, especially if ineffectively managed, leads to a very large number of physical complications. The following takes you through the possible short-term and long-term complications of diabetes. These vary depending on whether the person has type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes is associated with long-term complications that affect almost every part of the body. The disease often leads to blindness, heart and blood vessel disease, stroke, kidney failure, amputations, and nerve damage. Uncontrolled diabetes can complicate pregnancy, and birth defects are more common in babies born to women with diabetes.
In 2007, diabetes cost the United States $174 billion. Indirect costs, including disability payments, time lost from work, and reduced productivity, totaled $58 billion. Direct medical costs for diabetes care, including hospitalizations, medical care, and treatment supplies, totaled $116 billion.
Short-term Diabetes Complications
Diabetic Ketoacidosis - The body begins to break down fat if the cells are starved for energy. This can produce toxic acids called ketones which can cause heart, brain and central nervous system damage.
Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) - When you have a high concentration of sugar in your blood, it affects your body's ability to do its job effectively. Sustained high levels of blood sugar can lead to amputations, nerve damage, blindness, heart and kidney disease.
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) - Your brain and body needs glucose to function. If your blood sugar is too low, the result can be unconsciousness, seizures and even death.
Long-term Diabetes Complications
Heart Disease and Stroke
75% of people with diabetes will die of heart disease or stroke, and according to the American Diabetes Association, they are more likely to die at a younger age than people who don't have diabetes. Diabetics have the same cardiovascular risk as those who have already had a heart attack. In addition, they are 2-4 times more likely to suffer a stroke.
Diabetic Neuropathy and Nerve Damage
One of the most common complications of diabetes is diabetic neuropathy. Neuropathy means damage to the nerves that run throughout the body, connecting the spinal cord to muscles, skin, blood vessels, and other organs. About half of all people with diabetes have some form of nerve damage.
The symptoms of diabetic neuropathy usually start with tingling, numbness, burning or pain that begins at the tips of the toes or fingers and over a period of months or years gradually spreads upward. If it isn't treated, a diabetic could lose all sense of feeling in the affected limbs. Damage to the nerves related to digestion can cause problems with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation. For men, it may lead to problems with erectile dysfunction.
Kidney Disease (nephropathy)
Diabetes can damage the kidneys and cause them to fail. Failing kidneys lose their ability to filter out waste products, resulting in kidney disease; requiring the diabetic to undergo dialysis or a kidney transplant.
About 10-21 percent of the people with diabetes develop kidney disease. Factors that can influence kidney disease development include genetics, blood sugar control, and blood pressure.
The better a person keeps diabetes and blood pressure under control, the lower the chance of getting kidney disease.
Eye Damage and Blindness (diabetic retinopathy)
Diabetes can damage the retina. Each year, 12-24,000 people lose their sight because of diabetes. Diabetes is the leading cause of new blindness cases in people, ages 20-74.
Diabetes and Foot Complications
Foot problems occur when there is nerve damage or poor blood flow to the feet caused by artery disease. Left untreated, you can lose feeling in your feet and cuts and blisters can become serious infections. Severe damage might require toe, foot or even leg amputation.
- Nerve Disease and Amputations: About 60 to 70 percent of people with diabetes have mild to severe forms of diabetes-related nerve damage, which can lead to lower limb amputations. In fact, diabetes is the most frequent cause of non-traumatic lower limb amputations. The risk of a leg amputation is 15 to 40 times greater for a person with diabetes. Each year, 82,000 people lose their foot or leg to diabetes.
- Impotence due to diabetic neuropathy or blood vessel blockage: Impotence afflicts approximately 13 percent of men who have type 1 diabetes and eight percent of men who have type 2 diabetes. It has been reported that men with diabetes, over the age of 50 have impotence rates as high as 50 to 60 percent.
600 People a Day Die from DIabetes Complications
These statistics are scary, but not inevitable. In fact, as you will discover throughout this article, a change in diet and exercise alone can have a huge impact on the risk of diabetes complications.
Diabetes is widely recognized as one of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States. In 2006, it was the seventh leading cause of death. However, diabetes is likely to be underreported as the underlying cause of death on death certificates. In 2004, among people ages 65 years or older, heart disease was noted on 68 percent of diabetes-related death certificates; stroke was noted on 16 percent of diabetes-related death certificates for the same age group.
Last Updated: 09 January 2019
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD