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22 January 2021


Obesity, smoking and sedentary lifestyles put women at high risk of diabetes

WomenandDiabetesOn the eve of International Women’s Day, it is time to reflect on the impact of diabetes on women. An estimated 382 million people live with diabetes worldwide, and approximately half of these people are women. Diabetes is the ninth leading cause of death in women globally, causing 2.1 million deaths per year.

Obesity, smoking and sedentary lifestyles put women at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The risk is also increasing due to women’s longer life-expectancy. As a consequence, the toll diabetes takes on women is significant, particularly in terms of diabetes-related complications, such as heart disease.

Moreover, soaring rates of obesity and pre-existing diabetes in women of reproductive age contribute to a rise in the cases of gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM), which occurs during pregnancy.  If left untreated, this condition can lead to life-threatening complications including excessive birth weight, making the delivery dangerous for both mother and child.

The burden of diabetes on women is unique because it can affect both mothers and their unborn children. There is an urgent need to better inform women of the risks of diabetes and pregnancy and make screening universally available to ensure good health for both mother and child.

According to the latest estimates, close to one fifth of children worldwide were born to women with high blood sugar levels, a sign of gestational diabetes. Although the condition disappears after pregnancy, more than 50% of women with GDM will develop type 2 diabetes within 5 to 10 years of delivery.  Children born to women with GDM also have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The links between diabetes and other conditions need to be examined to better understand how diabetes impacts women’s health throughout their lives. In Europe, Diabetes is now regarded as the top risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke.  Women with diabetes have a greater risk of developing heart disease—and at a younger age—compared to those without diabetes.  Although pre-menopausal women without diabetes have a lower risk of heart disease than men, it appears that the protective benefit of female hormones is lost in women with diabetes, regardless of age.  Death from heart disease associated with type 2 diabetes is about 50% greater in women than it is in men.  

Diabetes disproportionately affects lower socioeconomic groups and older populations; women greatly outnumber men in these population groups in Europe.  Many women face serious obstacles when accessing diabetes prevention, diagnosis and treatment.  Women are also more exposed to the main risk factors of diabetes including poor diet and lack of physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption.  

It is imperative that researchers, policymakers and healthcare professionals understand the impact of social and biological factors on the prevention, development and treatment of diabetes in women. This is the only way forward to develop policies that truly empower women to improve diabetes prevention and management and to reduce the burden of diabetes now and for future generations.

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