Is diabetes genetic?

If you or a family member was recently diagnosed with diabetes, you may well be wondering if diabetes is genetic. Or maybe your blood glucose levels are higher than you’d like, and you’re concerned about whether diabetes is hereditary or acquired through environmental factors.

The answer is yes and no. Both genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of diabetes. The proof? Studies of identical twins show interesting results: even though identical twins have identical genes, when one twin gets type 1 diabetes, the other twin gets diabetes only half the time, at most. For type 2 diabetes, the numbers are higher, but still tell the same story: if one twin is living with diabetes, the other twins’ risk is, at most, three in four.

To answer the question, “Is diabetes hereditary?”, let’s take a look at how both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes may develop.

Is type 1 diabetes genetic?

If you or one of your parents have type 1 diabetes you may be wondering if you can pass it on to your children. Genes certainly play a role in type 1 diabetes, but they are not the only factor. Researchers think that multiple other factors, from the foods you eat to where you grow up, also have an impact. Here’s what we know about whether type 1 diabetes is hereditary or acquired:

  1. There is a hereditary aspect to developing the disease, but people need to inherit the risk factors from both their mother and father.
  2. There is no specific diabetes gene that gives you type 1 diabetes. However, there are a dozen or so human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes that help keep your immune system healthy. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, so it makes sense that these HLA genes play a large part in its development.
  3. Your race and ethnicity seem to play a part as well, as there is a correlation between these risk factors and white (Caucasian) people, who have the highest rate of type 1 diabetes.

Not just genetics: Additional risk factors for type 1 diabetes

Not everyone who is at risk gets diabetes – in fact, most people don’t. So what are the environmental factors for type 1 diabetes that could be at play here?

  • Weather. Cold climates and winter seem to be triggers for the disease.
  • Viruses. While sometimes viruses only have mild effects, it seems to lead to the development of type 1 diabetes for some people.
  • Early diet. Type 1 diabetes is less common in people who were breastfed as babies and started eating solids at a later stage.
  • Age. There are age brackets where type 1 diabetes tends to appear: in children between the ages of 4 and 7, and in children between the ages of 10 and 14. It’s important to note that while there is a prevalence of cases at these ages, type 1 diabetes can appear at any age.

Is type 2 diabetes genetic?

It’s hard to say. On the one hand, there is a very strong link between your family’s genetics and the onset of type 2 diabetes. Race can also be a determining factor. We don’t know why but type 2 diabetes seems to have a link to race and ethnicity, showing up more often in people of Black African descent, Hispanic populations, Native American, Asian, and Pacific Islanders. Age plays a role as well. If you’re 45 or over, you’re at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes.

However, it’s important to look at environmental and cultural factors here as well. Lifestyle choices like what you eat, how often you exercise, and whether you maintain a healthy weight are all part of the bigger picture – and these kinds of habits often run in families and cultures.

Nurture versus nature: Steps for diabetes prevention & management of diabetes

The good news is whether diabetes is hereditary or acquired, when it comes to lifestyle choices, it’s all in your hands. Here are some ideas for how you can take control.

Get educated

The more you know, the better. The CDC has lots of information about diabetes self-management education and support, which is a great place to start. It can be a lot to learn, especially in the beginning, but every step you take towards managing your care makes a difference!

Maintain a healthy weight

Take heart – there are things you can do to make a difference.

Try these tips:

  • Give the ADA’s Diabetes Plate Method a shot for smart nutrition. It takes the guesswork out of what you should and shouldn’t be eating, with simple guidelines that are easy to follow. For the adventurous, spend some time online discovering new meal ideas, interesting products, and strategies for success.
  • Don’t skip breakfast! Here are two good reasons why: 1. According to the American Heart Association, studies show that eating breakfast every morning may help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. 2. A clinical trial found that when people managing type 2 diabetes skipped breakfast, their blood glucose levels were 37% higher at lunchtime than on the days they ate breakfast.
  • Can you try to get 150 minutes of physical activity a week? Set aside a half an hour five days a week and you’ll be in good shape! Find something that you’re excited about doing, whether it’s cycling with a friend, trying a Zumba class, or lifting weights while watching your favorite show. Don’t forget about walking – it’s free and you can do it anytime, anywhere. The important thing is to commit to something that is realistic for you and your lifestyle.

Keep an eye on your blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol

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Fight diabetes distress

Easier said than done, of course – but super important! Dealing with daily diabetes care can be draining. Even people with years of good management under their belt can get discouraged and allow unhealthy habits to creep in. Unfortunately, 33% to 50% of people with living diabetes experiencing diabetes distress in any 18-month period. What can you do to keep calm and relaxed, despite the challenges of diabetes?

  • Make time for yourself. Meditate, journal, listen to music – spend a few minutes each day in your happy place.
  • Feeling stressed? Try this: Take a deep breath in through your nose and let the air out through your mouth. Repeat at least five times. Go out for a walk, outside if possible. Keep paying attention to your breath.
  • Just say no. Be protective of your time and energy. If you feel like you’re taking on too much, fitting in too many activities, and constantly rushing from one thing to another, slow your pace, even if others will be disappointed.

Your wellness journey

If you’re still wondering if diabetes is hereditary, check out this tool from the Surgeon General to assess your risk based on your family’s health history: My Family Health Portrait. While there’s no real way of knowing whether diabetes is hereditary or acquired, we hope you have the answers you need to for your wellness journey.




Medical Disclaimer
The articles provided on this website are for informational purposes only. In addition, it is written for a generic audience and not a specific case; therefore, this information should not be used for diagnostic or medical treatment. This site does not attempt to replace the patient-physician relationship and fully recommends the reader to seek out the best care from his/her physician and/or diabetes educator.


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