What is Diabetes ?

Diabetes is a chronic disease characterised by high levels of glucose in the blood. Blood sugar levels are controlled by insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin, or the body becomes resistant to insulin, or both.

Page last updated: 15 October 2013

Diabetes mellitus was endorsed as a National Health Priority Area at the Australian Health Minister's Conference in 1996 in recognition of the high prevalence of the disease in Australia, its impact on morbidity and mortality, and its potential for health improvements through prevention and treatment programs.

Types of diabetes

There are three main types of diabetes:
  • Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease where the body's immune system attacks the insulin producing cells of the pancreas. People with type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin and require lifelong insulin injections for survival. The disease can occur at any age, although it mostly occurs in children and young adults. Type 1 diabetes is sometimes referred to as juvenile onset diabetes or insulin dependent diabetes.

  • Type 2 diabetes is associated with hereditary factors and lifestyle risk factors including poor diet, insufficient physical activity and overweight or obesity. People with type 2 diabetes may be able to manage their condition through lifestyle changes; however, diabetes medications or insulin injections may also be required to control blood sugar levels. Type 2 diabetes occurs mostly in people aged over 40 years old, however, the disease is also becoming increasingly prevalent in younger age groups1.

  • Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy. The condition usually disappears once the baby is born, however, a history of gestational diabetes increases a woman's risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. The condition may be managed through adopting healthy dietary and exercise habits, although diabetes medication, including insulin, may also be required to manage blood sugar levels.

How common is diabetes?

Results from the 2011-12 Australian Health Survey estimated that around 1 million people (more than 4% of the population) had been diagnosed with diabetes (excluding gestational diabetes) in Australia2. This estimate is based on self-reported data, and therefore the prevalence of diabetes may actually be higher, as those with undiagnosed diabetes are not included in the prevalence estimate. Of those who reported having been diagnosed with diabetes, 85% reported having type 2 diabetes, 12% reported having type 1 diabetes, and 3% did not know which type of diabetes they had3.

It is estimated that gestational diabetes mellitus affects women in about 5% of pregnancies4.

Based on the latest self-reported data, the prevalence of diabetes in Australia may be showing the signs of steadying. In the years, between 1989-90 and 2007-08 the proportion of the Australian population reporting to have diabetes increased from 1.5% to 4.1% 5. This substantial increase has been attributed to more people developing the disease, but also people with diabetes living longer and improved detection of the disease6.

Type 2 diabetes is over-represented among Indigenous persons. In the 2004–05 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey, the self-reported prevalence of diabetes among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 6%. After adjusting for differences in age structure, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were 3 times as likely as other Australians to report diabetes as a long-term health condition. However, among those aged 45–54 years, they were 5 times as likely7.

Further information

For information on the signs and symptoms of diabetes or advice about diabetes management, please refer to the following websites:
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1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2008). Diabetes: Australian facts 2008, page 3.
2Australian Bureau of Statistics 4364.0.55.003 Australian Health Survey: Updated results 2011-12, 2013.
3 ibid
4 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2010). Diabetes in pregnancy: its impact on Australian women and their babies, page 3.
5 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2012). Australia’s health 2012. Australia’s health series no. 13. Cat. No. AUS 156. Canberra: AIHW, p.298.
6 Colaguiri S, Borch-Johnsen K, Glumer C & Vistisen D (2005). There really is an epidemic of type-2 diabetes. Diabetologia. 48(8): 1459-63
7 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2010). Australia’s health 2010, page 239.