6 Surprising Ways Diabetes Affects the Body

by Vanessa Caceres Health Writer

Maybe you have a mother or father with diabetes, or a tío or tía, and you’re worried that you may have it eventually. It’s normal to wonder about your own risk for diabetes. About 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Type 2 diabetes—the kind you usually develop as an adult—is the most common type of diabetes.

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Over their lifetime, Hispanic adults have a 50% chance of developing type 2 diabetes (10% more than non-Hispanic whites), the CDC reports. And if you’re Hispanic, you’re also more likely to have kidney damage, vision loss, and blindness related to diabetes. Click through to learn how diabetes can affect everything from your eyes to your nervous system, and how to prevent it.

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Eye Disease and Diabetes

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye disease caused by damage to blood vessels in the retina, located in the back of your eye. Diabetes causes these vessels to become weak or leaky, leading to vision loss. Among Hispanics with visual impairment, 15% have diabetic retinopathy, compared with 12.2% for Blacks and 4.7% for non-Hispanic whites, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

What you can do: If these eye diseases are caught early, it’s possible to treat them and avoid or reduce loss of vision, says Kathleen Wyne, M.D., a professor of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

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Heart Disease and Diabetes

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Hispanics in the U.S., according to the CDC. If you have diabetes, the challenge of processing insulin can damage the heart, Dr. Wyne says. This can lead to shortness of breath and swelling in the lower legs. A person with diabetes may not know they are having heart problems and reduce physical activity to avoid troublesome symptoms. In turn, that lack of activity makes diabetes worse.

What you can do: Move more and get regular physical activity. Try this: Each day, turn on some of your favorite reggaeton or salsa hits and dance like no one is watching.

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Kidney Damage and Diabetes

When you have high blood sugar, your kidneys have to work harder to filter out waste, which can lead to kidney damage over time, says Sandra Arévalo, R.D.N., diabetes care and education specialist at Montefiore Nyack Hospital in Nyack, New York. You may not know that you have kidney damage until you have major symptoms like frequent urination or muscle cramping, says Kathryn Boling, M.D., a family medicine specialist with Mercy Medical Center in the Baltimore area. Hispanic/Latinx folks are 1.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with kidney failure than other demographics, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

What you can do: Work with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to identify simple dietary changes you can make to help keep your diabetes under control.

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Gum Disease and Diabetes

Gum disease is an infection of the gum and bone that surrounds the teeth. Symptoms of gum disease include bad breath, trouble chewing, and gum pain. Gum disease often gets overlooked when someone does not have dental insurance or they do not have regular exams and cleanings where it would be detected and treated, Dr. Wyne says.

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Gum Disease, Continued

Poorly controlled diabetes is associated with gum disease, loss of teeth, and the eventual need for dentures. Tooth loss can affect your diet and make it harder to eat healthy and manage your blood sugars.

What you can do: Monitor your dental health closely with regular exams and cleanings (twice a year at minimum). If you have insurance coverage concerns, ask your health care team for help finding a dentist that works for your circumstances.

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Nerve Damage and Diabetes

You have nerve endings all over your body that help you feel sensations and temperature changes. Diabetes that is not adequately controlled can lead to nerve damage (also called neuropathy), particularly in your feet, Dr. Boling says. The symptoms of that nerve damage differ depending on which nerves are affected. Some people lose sensation altogether, while others feel pain or burning.

What you can do: If you have diabetes and nerve damage in your feet, wear protective footwear even in places like the beach to help avoid cuts. Inspect your feet daily for inflammation or injuries.

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Gastroparesis and Diabetes

Usually, your stomach processes your food to make it small enough to push into the small intestine and continue digestion. With gastroparesis, the stomach muscles take a long time to empty the food. If your stomach hurts or you feel nauseous after every meal—even your mom’s famous arroz con pollo—or you have heartburn, this could be caused by uncontrolled diabetes and possible gastroparesis. One 2019 study found that Hispanics with diabetes were at greater risk from gastroparesis than their non-Hispanic peers who also had diabetes.

What you can do: Prediabetic? Delay full-blown diabetes and gastroparesis by making changes to what you eat and incorporating a fitness routine into your schedule (walking counts!), Dr. Boling says.

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Preventing Side Effects of Diabetes

Although these lesser known effects of diabetes may sound scary, you do have some control over them. “All symptoms of diabetes and consequences are more apparent when diabetes is poorly managed,” Arévalo says. The number one thing you can do to avoid these health effects is monitor your blood sugar. Show up for regular health appointments, check your blood sugar at home as needed, and have hemoglobin A1C checks regularly. These can show your average blood sugar over a three-month period.

Vanessa Caceres
Meet Our Writer
Vanessa Caceres

Vanessa Caceres is a freelance health, travel, and food writer. She enjoys helping consumers better understand their health and helping health providers better understand their patients. She also has a background teaching English as a second language to adults and has a master's degree in this area from Georgetown University. Her background in education helps her with many of the stories she writes.