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Our DNA is like a blueprint for our bodies. It has tens of thousands of genes that tell us how to build and take care of our bodies. Changes to the code of these genes can make you more likely to get certain conditions or even cause them. What about diabetes, then?
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is caused by a number of different genes. Changes in these genes don’t “cause” type 1, but they do make it more likely that you will get it. Type 1 diabetes is more likely to happen if your genes have changed in ways that put you at risk.
Some of these changes can be passed down through families, but just because you have a few high-risk changes doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get type 1 diabetes. We know this because we’ve looked at twins whose DNA codes are exactly the same. There are cases where one twin with Type 1 doesn’t have it, but the other does. This shows that our risk of getting type 1 diabetes isn’t just based on our genes. There must be other things at play.
We still don’t know everything about what causes type 1 diabetes. Scientists think that, in addition to these high-risk genetic changes, the environment may also play a role. Right now, they are looking at things like viral infections, the bacteria in our guts, and what we eat to learn more about how and why type 1 happens.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is also affected by our genes. There are more than 400 genes where changes to the code can make you more likely to get type 2. Some of these changes can be passed down through families, just like type 1 diabetes. Having more of these high-risk changes will make it more likely that you will get the condition.
But having these genetic changes that make you more likely to get type 2 diabetes doesn’t mean you will definitely get it. We know that other things, like our weight and blood pressure, can also make us more likely to get type 2 diabetes. We can lower our risk of type 2 diabetes by keeping a healthy weight, which we can’t do for type 1.
There are different kinds of diabetes, like neonatal diabetes or Maturity Onset of Diabetes of the Young (MODY). These rare types of diabetes are caused by a change in just one gene, which can be passed down from parent to child. A child of a person with MODY has a chance of about 50%, or 1 in 2, of getting the condition.
People with monogenic diabetes need to get the right diagnosis because they might be able to take pills to keep their blood sugar levels stable instead of getting insulin shots.
Genetic risk calculators
Scientists are making risk calculators based on genes. These tests add up the number of diabetes-related changes in a person’s genes and combine them with other information, like their weight or age when they were diagnosed, to figure out how likely they are to get diabetes and what kind. In the future, this could help us find the people who are most likely to get a certain type of diabetes, get worse quickly, or even get complications, so that they can get the best care and support.
We have no say over the genes we get from our parents or the genes we give to our children. But if you know someone in your family has type 1 diabetes, the most important thing to remember is the “4 T’s”: thirst, tiredness, the toilet, and thinner. If someone in your family has type 2 diabetes, you can also try to lower your risk by staying active and eating a healthy, balanced diet.
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