What’s the Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?

While one is an autoimmune disorder, the other is often preventable and reversible if you take the right steps.

Person placing index finger on blood glucose reader


The pancreas has a couple of jobs in the human body. The first is to aid in digestion. The second is to help the body regulate blood sugar by producing a hormone called insulin. When the pancreas is compromised, the body can't control its own blood sugar. 

When the body lives in a consistently elevated state of high blood sugar, this is called diabetes. There are two types of diabetes we hear about most often: Type 1 and Type 2. While both are a state of elevated blood sugar, they do have different causes and nuances.

Let’s have a look at the differences between these two common types of diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is commonly referred to as juvenile-onset diabetes. While it can occur at any age, it usually shows up in children and adolescents. With Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas is damaged by an autoimmune disorder in the body where the body mistakenly destroys insulin-producing cells.

Those with Type 1 diabetes are insulin-dependent for life and need regular insulin shots or an insulin pump to regulate their body's blood sugar continuously. About ten percent of those living with diabetes have Type 1 diabetes. While the exact causes aren’t known, it is more common for a child of a parent with Type 1 diabetes to also develop Type 1 diabetes.

Dejanique, a recent case from Episode 4 of Chasing the Cure, lives with Type 1 diabetes and was diagnosed as a child. One of the critical steps that the physician team is taking in her case is to get her blood sugar under control, which likely got knocked out of whack by complications and dietary challenges following her appendix removal.

For those with Type 1 diabetes like Dejanique, diet, exercise and mental well-being are of the utmost importance. It can take some trial-and-error for patients to find the right balance of food, food types and exercise levels that help them live their healthiest lives.

For resources about Type 1 diabetes, visit the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Resource Foundation (JDRF).

Type 2 diabetes
While Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder, Type 2 diabetes is a form of insulin resistance combined with the body’s inability to make enough insulin to compensate for the resistance.

Most cases of Type 2 diabetes are seen in adults, earning this type of diabetes the name "adult-onset diabetes." Those with Type 2 diabetes aren't born with it. Instead, it's developed over time due to hereditary and lifestyle factors. Roughly 90% of all patients living with diabetes have Type 2 diabetes.

The most significant factors that can lead to developing Type 2 diabetes are unhealthy diets high in saturated fats and refined sugar, obesity and a lack of physical activity.

Those with Type 2 diabetes also use insulin to control their blood sugar. They’ll also be advised by their physicians to make better food choices and lose weight to decrease the overall stress on their bodies. 

Unlike Type 1 diabetics who are insulin-dependent for life, those with Type 2 can possibly reverse many of their symptoms by pursuing a healthier lifestyle and getting their diet and weight under control. It’s also possible that Type 2 diabetics won’t require life-long insulin treatment if they commit to maintaining a healthier lifestyle.

You can learn more from the American Diabetes Association about Type 2 diabetes, including symptoms.

E. Napoletano is an award-winning journalist and the recipient of the 2019 Illinois Women’s Press Association first-place prize for her feature on the traumatic effects of family separation policies at the border.