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August 2013

Diabetes May Be Worse for Women

Between men and women, diabetes doesn't always play fair. Both sexes are just as likely to develop the disease. But science shows that women may fare worse once they have it, particularly in terms of heart health.

Photo of a man and woman riding bicycles on the beach

Diabetes and the heart

In the journal Diabetes Care, researchers reviewed 10 years' worth of health records for nearly 74,000 people. Some had diabetes, and others did not. Their results showed the differences diabetes poses for men and women. Overall, women with diabetes were more likely to die earlier than men with the disease. They also suffered more heart-related problems and were more likely to need hospitalization for them.

Heart disease is a serious complication of diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, it's the leading cause of death for women with diabetes. That may be because women are often diagnosed with diabetes later in life. They may also have other conditions that have already damaged their hearts, including high cholesterol and excess body fat.

Women who have diabetes may not always receive treatment for heart-related problems. That's the conclusion of one past study of more than 4,800 people with the disease-nearly half of whom were women. Female participants tended to have higher cholesterol levels, compared with men. But their blood fat levels weren't checked as often. Plus, women were less likely to be on a statin-a drug that lowers cholesterol.

Beyond the heart

The risk for heart disease isn't the only difference between men and women with diabetes. Hormones-particularly estrogen and progesterone-can play a role in managing the disease. Fluctuating hormone levels in a woman's body can throw off blood sugar levels. As a result, some women may find it harder to control their diabetes the week before and during their period.

Menopause has a similar effect. As a woman grows older, her body produces less estrogen and progesterone. This drop in hormones may cause unstable blood sugar levels. In turn, that can worsen symptoms of menopause. Women with diabetes may suffer more bouts of mood swings, hot flashes, sleep problems, and fatigue.

Women with diabetes must take special care if they become pregnant, too. As with menopause, hormone levels can change constantly during pregnancy. Blood sugar levels can spike and crash much more often. To help protect the baby from health problems and an early birth, pregnant women need to keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

Hormones aside, diabetes may harm women more than men in other ways. Women with the disease are prone to urinary problems and recurrent yeast infections. Diabetes may also affect the brain. A small study compared the brains of men and women with diabetes. Brain scans showed that women suffered more changes in the area of the brain that manages memory and mood.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.


Find more articles and resources about diabetes in the Diabetes Health Center.


Online Resources

American Diabetes Association - Women and Diabetes: Frequently Asked Questions

National Institute of Diabetics and Digestive and Kidney Diseases - Your Guide to Diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2


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