How diabetes affects women differently than men

Family Health
Apr 25, 2024

Here are six differences in type 2 diabetes between males and females

You’re most likely familiar with diabetes. It’s the condition in which the body doesn’t make or use insulin correctly.

You may or may not know that diabetes is increasing in both males and females. Also, you may not realize that diabetes affects women differently than men.

In 2021, more than 38 million Americans had diabetes, some diagnosed and some undiagnosed, says Ashley Andrews, population navigator for the St. Joseph’s/Candler Center for Diabetes Management. Andrews also is board certified in Advanced Diabetes Management. Ashley Andrews

There is a higher rate of type 2 diabetes in men versus women, Andrews says. As of 2023, it was estimated worldwide that 17.7 million more men than women had diabetes; however, women have a higher rate of diagnosis earlier than men and are at risk of more severe complications than men.

Let’s take a look at just some of the differences.

Difference 1: The age of diagnosis

Two-thirds of type 2 diabetes cases in children and young adults are diagnosed in females. It is believed females are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at an earlier age because the changes of puberty tend to happen sooner in females.

As boys reach puberty, those numbers typically reverse. As women age and enter menopause, their hormones change, again affecting how their bodies use insulin. This puts older women at a higher risk of developing diabetes as opposed to the same-age male counterparts.

“Women have more hormonal fluctuations than men throughout their lifespan which affects glucose levels,” Andrews explains.

Difference 2: Recognizing symptoms

The early warning signs of diabetes are the same for both male and female: frequent urination, constantly feeling thirsty, blurry vision and fatigue, to name a few.

Some women may think that’s just a part of a busy lifestyle and put off going to the doctor. Regardless of a hectic lifestyle, if you experience any of the common warning signs of diabetes, Andrews encourages you to talk to your doctor.

Difference 3: Risk factors play different roles

Lifestyle is a big risk factor for diabetes in both men and women. If you follow a poor diet, don’t exercise and smoke, you’re at an increased risk for diabetes. Family history also plays a role, but not as significantly as lifestyle and health behaviors.

Related Article: Is diabetes genetic?

One difference in risk factors is our weight. Men tend to be diagnosed with diabetes at a lower body mass index (BMI). Women tend to be diagnosed at higher BMIs and weights, especially those with central obesity.

“However, having excessive visceral fat can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes in either gender,” Andrews says. “Men with lower testosterone levels and have increased visceral fat and decreased muscle mass are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”

Another risk factor to pay attention to is depression. Stress and depression can have a negative impact on our overall health, which can lead to worsening of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Difference 4: Heart complications

It’s a scary fact: women with diabetes are more likely to die of heart disease than men are, Andrews says. The risk of heart disease increases nearly six-fold for women with diabetes as they age as opposed to a man or women without diabetes. Men with type 2 diabetes have about a two times greater risk of developing heart disease than a man or woman without diabetes.

Additionally, women with diabetes have worse outcomes after a heart attack and are more likely to die from a heart attack than men with diabetes.

This fact is compounded by the fact that women and men experience signs and symptoms of heart attacks differently. Women often do not recognize the signs of a heart attack and/or may delay treatment, leading to a lower chance of recovery.

Related Article: Heart attack symptoms in women can differ than men

Difference 5: Other complications are often more severe

In addition to more severe complications from heart disease, women with diabetes also are at higher risk of other diabetes-related complications, such as blindness and kidney disease. Complications with diabetic kidney disease are often associated with menopause changes and estrogen levels.

Diabetes can also take its toll on a person’s mental health. In the general population, women are twice as likely as men to experience depression.

Difference 6: Conditions only in women can be risk factors for diabetes

There are certain reproductive conditions that only happen in women. For example, polycystic ovary syndrome, which is a hormonal disorder causing enlarged ovaries with small cysts. This condition increases a female’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Related Article: What is polycystic ovary syndrome?

Another risk factor for type 2 diabetes is gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes diagnosed in pregnant women who did not have diabetes before becoming pregnant. Gestational diabetes typically ends with pregnancy; however, it does increase the tendency to later develop on-set diabetes.

“Pregnancy can lead to impaired glucose control and diabetes during pregnancy,” Andrews says. “Having gestational diabetes puts a woman at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes during her lifetime.”

Related Article: What is gestational diabetes?

Women with diabetes who are going through menopause should be aware that it can lead to higher blood glucose levels, sleep issues and weight gain, which can all exacerbate glucose levels, Andrews says. It’s important to maintain a healthy diet, exercise and take all medication as prescribed.

Be proactive about diabetes – whether you’re male or female

Yes, there are differences in men and women with diabetes; however, it’s still a chronic condition that can affect any gender. Be proactive about your health by living a healthy lifestyle.

Get as much exercise as possible – at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week, the American Heart Association recommends. And eat a sensible diet – watch the refined sugars and eat whole grains, appropriate portions of protein and carbs and eat a lot of vegetables. This all will contribute to reducing the risk of developing diabetes, Andrews says.

If you have concerns or questions about diabetes, the St. Joseph’s/Candler Center for Diabetes Management offers outpatient counseling. Learn more on our website.

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