How Diabetes Affects Women

Diabetes can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, gender or lifestyle. It can cause serious health problems, including heart attack or stroke, blindness, problems during pregnancy and kidney failure. Diabetes affects women and men in almost equal numbers. However, diabetes affects women differently than men. More than 13 million women have diabetes, or about one in 10 women aged 20 and older. Women with diabetes have a higher risk for heart disease, a higher risk of blindness and a higher risk for depression.

Men and women with diabetes tend to have very different outcomes

Dr ANDERSEN

Margaret Andersen, MD

According to a 2007 study in Annals of Internal Medicine, the death rate for men with diabetes fell between 1971 and 2000, reflecting the many advances in diabetes treatment. However, the death rate for women with diabetes showed no signs of improvement during the same time frame. Additionally, the difference in death rates between women who had diabetes and those who didn’t more than doubled.

This study of diabetes in men and women offered several possible reasons for the gender differences, including:

  • Women often receive less aggressive treatment for cardiovascular risk factors and conditions related to diabetes.
  • The complications of diabetes in women are more difficult to diagnose.
  • Women often have different kinds of heart disease than men.
  • Hormones and inflammation act differently in women.

If you are a woman with diabetes, or are at risk for developing it, these are all areas of concern and something that at Westchester Health we take very seriously. To help all patients, male and female, understand how diabetes affects women differently and how to recognize and treat the symptoms, we offer this blog focusing on information and advice.

Symptoms of diabetes in women

Women with diabetes experience many of the same symptoms as men. However, some symptoms are unique to women. Understanding both will help you identify diabetes so you can seek treatment early when the disease is easier to manage.

Symptoms unique to women include:
  • vaginal and oral yeast infections
  • vaginal thrush
  • urinary infections
  • female sexual dysfunction
  • polycystic ovary syndrome
Symptoms experienced by women and men:
  • increased thirst and hunger
  • frequent urination
  • weight loss or gain that has no obvious cause
  • fatigue
  • blurred vision
  • wounds that heal slowly
  • nausea
  • skin infections
  • patches of darker skin in areas of the body that have creases
  • irritability
  • breath that has a sweet or fruity odor
  • reduced feeling in hands or feet

NOTE: It’s important to keep in mind that many people with type 2 diabetes have no noticeable symptoms.

Pregnancy and diabetes

  1. Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes

If you have diabetes and are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant, talk to your doctor about the best ways to manage your and your baby’s health. When you are pregnant, blood glucose and ketones travel through the placenta to the baby. If your glucose levels are too high, your baby could be at be at risk for birth defects. That’s why your blood glucose levels and general health should be tracked before and during your pregnancy so that any issues or problems can be detected and treated immediately.

  1. Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes occurs in approximately 9% of pregnancies. The hormones of pregnancy interfere with the way insulin works, which causes the body to make more insulin. However for some women, these additional insulin levels are still not high enough and they develop gestational diabetes. In most women, gestational diabetes stops after pregnancy but their risk for type 2 diabetes is increased.

Risk factors for type 2 diabetes in women

According to the Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, you are at risk for type 2 diabetes if you:

  • are older than 45
  • are overweight or obese
  • have a family history of diabetes (parent or sibling)
  • are African-American, Native American, Native Alaskan, Hispanic, Asian-American or Native Hawaiian
  • have had a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds at birth
  • have had gestational diabetes
  • have high blood pressure
  • have high cholesterol
  • exercise less than three times a week
  • have other health conditions linked to problems using insulin, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • have a history of heart disease or stroke

Treatment

Once you have been diagnosed with diabetes, there is no cure, only symptom management. But the good news is that a wide variety of medications, lifestyle changes and alternative remedies can help manage the symptoms of diabetes and improve your overall health.

At all stages of life, women’s bodies present challenges for managing diabetes and blood sugar due to:

  • The fluctuating hormones associated with the menstrual cycle, childbearing and menopause make it more difficult to maintain proper blood glucose levels.
  • Some birth control pills can increase blood glucose.
  • Glucose can cause yeast infections.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent or delay diabetes, avoid its complications and manage symptoms. At Westchester Health, we recommend:

  1. Medications

There are a variety of medications you can take to manage the symptoms and complications of diabetes. These include:

  • Insulin therapy
  • Metformin (reduces blood sugar)
  • Sulfonylureas like Glipizide which increase pancreatic insulin secretion
  • Thiazoldinenediones which decreases glucose in the liver and helps fat cells use insulin better
  • Plus several other newer medications all which help control blood sugar
  1. Lifestyle Changes

For many of our patients, lifestyle changes can help them successfully manage their diabetes and increase their life expectancy. These include:

  • exercising and maintaining a healthy weight
  • stop smoking cigarettes
  • eating a diet focused on fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • monitoring their blood sugar

Complications of diabetes specific to women

There are a variety of complications caused by diabetes that women with this disease should be aware of:

  1. Eating disorders. Studies suggest that eating disorders are more common in women with diabetes.
  2. Coronary heart disease. Many women who have type 2 diabetes already have heart disease when diagnosed (even young women).
  3. Skin conditions. Including bacterial or fungal infections.
  4. Nerve damage. Can cause pain or loss of feeling in affected limb.
  5. Eye damage. Can potentially lead to blindness.
  6. Foot ulcers. Can result in amputation if not treated promptly.
  7. Impaired Circulation. Due to the effect of glucose on blood vessels.

Concerned about diabetes? Please come see us.

At Westchester Health, our #1 goal is to help you get and stay healthy. A very important part of that is screening you for diabetes type 1 and type 2, and then helping you learn how to successfully manage it. If you are concerned that you have diabetes, or may be at risk of developing it, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health Internal Medicine specialists. The sooner we can diagnose and start treating this condition, the sooner you’ll have peace of mind and start feeling better. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

By Margaret Andersen, MD, an internist with Women Caring For Women, an internal medicine practice focused solely on women, part of Westchester Health, member of Westchester Health Physician Partners

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