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Is diabetes inherited?

Last Modified: April 19, 2024

Family Medicine, Diseases & Disorders

Intergenerational family cooking together

This post was written by Mary Lou Sorg, RN, BC, CDCES, diabetes care education specialist, Diabetes Care Services, Parkview Health.

When considering the traits that are passed to us through ancestral lineage, typically what comes to mind are the features reflected in the mirror. Maybe you see your mother’s smile or your grandfather’s nose. Beyond these visible characteristics, we also inherit the likelihood of developing chronic conditions like diabetes.

People who have a family history of diabetes, such as a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle or grandparent, have an increased risk of developing diabetes in their lifetime. Individuals without a direct relative may also develop diabetes due to certain environmental factors. In this post, we discuss the role of genetics in diabetes, as well as environmental triggers and strategies managing the risk factors.

Genetic influence

Diabetes and its influence on genetics can be confusing. Let’s clear some things up. Everyone has chromosomes from both parents that carry the genes responsible for determining which traits they will have like eye color, blood type or dimples. Some of these genes are dominant and always show up, while others are recessive and must be carried by both parents to be present in their offspring.

With diabetes, there is a genetic tendency or predisposition towards developing the condition, but that does not guarantee its occurrence. By looking at patterns and populations of people, we’ve learned that individuals of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds are at a higher risk for developing diabetes. Those who have Native American, African, Hispanic and Burmese ancestry have a heightened risk of developing type 2 diabetes, while type 1 diabetes occurs more frequently in those who have Caucasian ancestors.

Environmental triggers

Environmental factors like a viral infection or certain lifestyle choices can trigger a trait that may have otherwise been dormant. 

Type 2 diabetes is the most prevalent form of the disease and develops when the body is unable to use insulin properly. While having a direct relative increases the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, it can be delayed or prevented by altering lifestyle habits.

On the other hand, type 1 diabetes occurs when a person’s immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas responsible for producing insulin. Although having a relative with this form of diabetes can increase one’s risk of developing the disease, it is usually triggered by an illness or environmental factor that causes the autoimmune reaction. Type 1 diabetes is not preventable but may be delayed with early detection. Individuals with a relative who has type 1 diabetes can be screened for specific autoantibodies that would increase their risk.

Managing the risk

Although you can’t choose your family or which traits you inherit, taking proactive steps to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes can significantly improve your health outcomes. Begin by identifying your risk factors.

For type 2 diabetes this can easily be accomplished with the American Diabetes Association (ADA) 60-second screening tool. Once completed, the ADA will provide the results of the test as well as additional information on modifying your risk factors. In most cases, this will involve adopting or improving lifestyle habits such as eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy body weight and increasing physical activity.

If you have a relative with type 1 diabetes, speak with your primary care provider about testing for autoantibodies and the frequency in which you have lab work drawn for screenings. If the autoantibodies are present, you and your doctor can discuss the risks and benefits of a medication like teplizumab, which works to delay the development of type 1 diabetes and the need for insulin treatment.

Final thoughts

Diabetes is a complex medical condition that can be affected by various factors such as genetics, environment, and lifestyle choices. Although genetics can increase the risk of developing the disease, taking proactive measures such as seeking advice and support from your healthcare provider and adhering to a well-balanced diet and regular physical exercise can significantly enhance your chances of preventing or controlling diabetes.

Learn more

Speak with your primary care physician to assess your risk for diabetes. If needed, your physician can refer you to Diabetes Care Services. Whether it’s getting screened for diabetes, developing a healthy lifestyle plan or joining the Parkview Diabetes Prevention Program, Diabetes Care Services is here to help you every step of the way.


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