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October 19, 2011 at 8:00 AMComments: 2 Faves: 0

Will I Get Diabetes If A Family Member Has It?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

The number of people with diabetes is increasing to staggering proportions. 

Presently in 2011, 25.8 million children and adults in America have diabetes.  That is 8.3% of the population!  Factoring out the younger population, the proportion of diabetic Americans over the age of 20 increases to 11.3%.   Last year, 1.9 million new cases were diagnosed.  It's estimated that 7 million Americans are undiagnosed. 

No small matter as the effects can be serious. Diabetes has been tied to a number of life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, stroke and kidney failure. If you do not have diabetes but have a relative with the disease, it's important to learn about prevention. Diabetes can be inherited or passed down family lines.

Diabetes is classified into Type 1 and Type 2. 

If You Have a Family Member with Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 - formerly known as juvenile diabetes - is much less prevalent and less is known about its patterns of inheritance . In this disease, the immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing function of the pancreas.

What are the risk factors for Type 1 Diabetes?

  • Both Parents Have Type 1 Diabetes. It's felt that in most cases of type 1 diabetes, risk is inherited from both parents. The risks double if a parent developed diabetes before the age of 11.
    • Just Your Father has Type 1 Diabetes. If your father has type 1 diabetes, you have a 1 in 17 chance of getting the disease.
    • Just Your Mother has Type 1 Diabetes. If your mother has type 1 diabetes, things are a bit more complicated.  If you were born before she was 25, your risk is 1 in 25.  If you were born after she was 25, the risk is 1 in 100.
  • Being Born In a Cold Weather Month. There are other curious factors at play such as an increased risk for those born in cold weather months.
  • Having a Viral Infection. Links have been found between viral infections and the occurrence of type 1 Diabetes. 
  • Being Bottle Fed or Fed Solid Foods Early. Further, type 1 diabetes is less common in people who were breastfed and in those who first ate solid foods at later ages.

Scientists are learning more with time about the genetics of type 1 diabetes, and, as of yet, there are no recommendations for prevention.

If You Have a Family Member with Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes (formerly known as adult onset diabetes) is much more common and continues to increase in prevalence.  There are two sides to the coin with type 2 diabetes: a genetic predisposition, and lifestyle.  Sometimes it's not so easy to figure out if genetics play a role in the development of the disease because of the obesity factor. 

What are the risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes?

  • Obesity. Obesity is a strong lifestyle risk for diabetes. It too runs in families; however, this may be because families tend to have similar eating and exercise habits.
  • If One Parent has Type 2 Diabetes. Concerning a family history with a parent that has diabetes, your risk is about 1 in 7 if they were diagnosed before the age of 50 and 1 in 13 if diagnosed after the age of 50. 
  • If Both Parents have Type 2 Diabetes. If both parents have diabetes, the risk is 1 in 2! Sometimes diabetes can skip generations, but this is likely due in large part to the lifestyle factor.
  • If Your Mother Had Gestational Diabetes? Gestational diabetes only factors in if your mother went on to develop type 2 diabetes.  A  woman’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes after gestational diabetes is around 1 in 2.  This can take years to develop. 

I am at risk for Type 2 Diabetes. How can I  help prevent it?

While there is nothing at this point to change a person’s genetic predisposition for type 2 diabetes, lifestyle modification can help. If you, like many, have diabetes in your family, it's never too early to work on prevention.

  • Maintain a Healthy Weight. Studies have shown that it's possible to delay or prevent diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight through healthy eating and exercising.  
  • See a Dietitian. See a dietitian to help with meal planning and eating habits. 
  • Take a Class. Take a class through the American Diabetes Association to gain more knowledge about diabetes and proper eating. 
  • Partner with Your Diabetic Relative. There are many great tips on the Hellolife website.  I recommend partnering with your diabetic relative to encourage and work toward a healthy lifestyle. 

As a society, we must learn from history, and our family’s health history is no exception.  Knowledge is power, and in this power, we can find prevention from repeating history.

Sources:  The American Diabetes Association, The Genetic Landscape of Diabetes by the National Institute of Health

More from Health Coach Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. Others Are Reading


  • My daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 11. The hardest part for anyone with diabetes is the discipline it takes to manage your blood sugars. Update medicines and technology make it possible to manage your blood sugars very exactly however it takes discipline. How can I get my 17 year old to adopt this discipline?

  • My 14 year old was diagnosed 4/12/16. This is all very new to us and we are learning so much! He is the only one with type 1 however We have several family members with type2.

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