General Risk Factors For Diabetes

There are many different risk factors that are linked to the potential increased chance of developing type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes and prediabetes. Type 1 diabetes has some of the same risk factors as the other forms of diabetes mentioned, but there is much less evidence as to the exact role that these factors play on the development of the disease.

Common Risk Factors For All Types Of Diabetes

There are several universal types of risk factors for developing all types of diabetes mellitus. These risk factors are not present in everyone that develops diabetes and some individuals with multiple risk factors do not develop diabetes. Understanding the risk factors that are present and then ensuring that routine testing for blood glucose levels and other signs of prediabetes are regularly completed at check-ups is a simple way to provide early diagnosis and intervention.

  • First-degree family history – when a first degree relative, a sibling, parent or child, is diagnosed with diabetes, is there is a higher risk of developing any type of diabetes. More distant relatives with diabetes such as aunts and uncles, grandparents or cousins are less likely to have an associated risk factor.
  • Genetic predisposition – certainly genetic factors, which vary between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, are more and more often coming to the forefront in research. Genetic factors can include specific mutations of cells that lead to alternations in the immune response or the cell’s ability to respond to insulin levels in the blood. With lower cost and more specific genetic testing now possible this may prove to be an invaluable diagnostic tool in the future.
  • Gestational diabetes – children born to mothers that experienced gestational diabetes have a higher risk factor for obesity and type 2 diabetes as well as the development of type 1 diabetes during their lifetime. Mothers who had gestational diabetes or even large babies (greater than 9 lbs) have an increased risk of developing T2D.

Other risk factors include obesity, poor physical fitness, increasing age, presence of hypertension or high cholesterol, and certain ethnic groups.

Additional Risk Factors for Type 1 Diabetes

Besides the common risk factors listed above there are some additional risk factors that are more unique to a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. One very unique factor for the development of type 1 diabetes is the geographic location of the mother during the pregnancy and the child during his or her younger years. Those that live farther from the equator have a higher chance of developing type 1 diabetes than those living on or near the equator. Recent research indicates that this geographic issue may actually be attributed to the amounts of Vitamin D that is available for the body to use. Vitamin D is necessary for correct immune system functioning and apoptosis (normal cell death), both which are linked to type 1 diabetes. While not definitive in human populations, animal studies have shown Vitamin D levels and the development of type 1 diabetes in a solid connection. 2

Additional Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes

The greatest risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes is obesity. This is generally indicated as a BMI or Body Mass Index of equal to or greater than 30. In a large study of over 195,005 adults over the age of 18 throughout the United States it was found that those with a BMI of 30 or greater had a prevalence of diabetes that was 7.9%. Those with a BMI of 40 or more had a seven times higher likelihood of being diagnosed with diabetes. This later group also had significantly higher odds ratios of being diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, asthma, arthritis or overall poor health. 3

In addition to weight, the specific distribution of the fat on the body is also a key indicator of the risk of type 2 diabetes. Individuals with a round shape, those that carry additional weight around the midsection, are at a higher risk for developing diabetes than those that are heavy more uniformly through the body.4

Combined with weight and fat deposits, other factors such as increasing age and more sedentary lifestyles also become risk factors for type 2 diabetes, prediabetes and gestational diabetes. This is again a combination of factors as people are more prone to less active lifestyles and increased weight gain as they age.

One factor that cannot be controlled by the individual is race. Although the specific reasons for the difference are not understood, except they are likely a genetic factor, different races are at statistically higher or lower rates for diabetes. The diagnosis rates of type 2 diabetes is lower in whites than of people of any ethnicity with darker skin including Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, American Indians and Pacific Islanders.

Women that have had gestational diabetes or those that have heavy birth weight babies or became pregnant when they were older are also at greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in their life. In addition infants that are born premature or with low birth weight are at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes in their life. 5

Genetic and environmental risk factors continue to be identified that may indicate a higher risk for the development of type 2 diabetes, prediabetes or gestational diabetes. However, most doctors and researchers agree that controlling body weight, making healthy food choices and living an active lifestyle is the most effective way to prevent the development of prediabetes, gestational diabetes and type 2 diabetes.


1 Stine Kvehaugen, A., Anderson, L. F., & Staff, A. C. (2010). Dietary intake and physical activity in women and offspring after pregnancies complicated by preeclampsia or diabetes mellitus. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavic , 1486-1490.

2 Hypponen, E. (2010). Vitamin D and increasing incidence of type 1 diabetes—evidence for an association? Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism , 737-743.

3 Mokdad, A. H., Ford, E. S., Bowman, B. A., et al. (2003). Prevalence of Obesity, Diabetes, and Obesity-Related Health Risk Factors, 2001. Journal of the American Medical Association , 76-79.

4 Gastaldelli, A. (2008). Abdominal fat: does it predict the development of type 2 diabetes? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition , 1118-1119.

5 Kaijser, M., Edstedt Bonamy, A.-K., & Akre, O. (2009). Perinatal Risk Factors for Diabetes in Later Life. Diabetes , 523-526.

This article was originally published July 12, 2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/10/2015.