When it comes to diabetes, women tend to have it worse than men. (Just more proof life isn’t fair.) More than 13 million women 20 years of age and older (about one in 10) currently have diabetes. And while diabetes affects women and men in almost equal numbers, it affects women in ways that are different from men.
Even though women generally live longer than men (largely because of their naturally lower rates of heart disease), when women get diabetes they lose this advantage. Men with diabetes live 7.5 years less on average than those who don’t have the disease, but for women the difference is 8.2 years. Women with diabetes are also more likely to be obese, have high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels and be at higher risk for heart disease, kidney disease (especially during menopause), depression and blindness than men.
Fluctuating hormones associated with the menstrual cycle, childbearing and menopause play a unique role in women’s risk for diabetes because they make it more difficult to maintain healthy blood glucose levels. Estrogen can support insulin sensitivity, so as estrogen levels drop near and during menopause, a woman can become more insulin-resistant (when the body’s cells stop responding to insulin) resulting in elevated blood glucose levels. Some birth control pills can increase blood glucose as well. Also for people with type 2 diabetes, menopause can make blood sugar levels less predictable, requiring more frequent monitoring.
During pregnancy — usually around the 24th week — many women develop gestational diabetes. This doesn’t mean that they had diabetes before they conceived or that they’ll have diabetes after giving birth. But it is a condition that requires close medical oversight. The most important thing affected women can do is follow their doctor’s advice regarding diet, exercise and monitoring their blood sugar levels to ensure a healthy pregnancy, mom and baby.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which can lead to weight gain and infertility, has been linked to excess insulin and the development of diabetes in women. Women with diabetes may suffer from lack of libido as well as be more prone to UTIs and yeast infections than women who do not have the disease.
Research suggests that eating disorders are probably more common among women with diabetes than women who do not have diabetes. For women with type 2 diabetes, binge eating is the most common. Because both diabetes and eating disorders involve weight management and food control, some people use the disease to justify or mask the disorder.
How can women stay healthy by either preventing diabetes or managing their diabetes? Besides getting plenty of exercise, eating a nutritious diet and maintaining their ideal weight, women with prediabetes and diabetes should get regularly tested for heart disease risk factors, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and treated if necessary. (Knowing the unique signs of a heart attack is also important.) And they should also be vocal in sharing their health history–especially gestational diabetes and PCOS — with their primary care doctor.
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