Silent killers

By: Alison Dunn Nov 29, 2010

Diabetes can cause a number of serious complications. Do you know how to prevent them?

Diabetes is a pretty complicated disease, compounded by the fact that, if left unchecked, it can cause a whole host of other complications. For those people facing a diagnosis of either Type I or Type II diabetes, it’s important to be aware of these complications and try to prevent them.

According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, the complications associated with diabetes are many and varied. While one person may avoid all of these complications, others may end up with one or more on this list. The key is to know what they are and make sure they don’t happen.


The CDA says the symptoms of depression are common in people with diabetes compared with the general population. Major depression is present in approximately 15 per cent of people living with diabetes.

Digestive problems

If you’re living with diabetes, take note: the CDA says digestive problems are one of the most common complications of diabetes. You are most likely to be affected by constipation (about 60 per cent of people with diabetes have the same issue), but don’t rule out diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms either. Among those is gastroparesis, or delayed emptying of the stomach.

Vision problems

Among the most widely publicized complications of diabetes are vision difficulties. According to the Canadian Association of Optometrists, diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in Canada. Why? It’s because over time, diabetes can cause changes in the tiny blood vessels in the retina at the back of the eye, which can then weaken and leak (known as retinopathy). If left untreated, it can lead to blindness. People with diabetes are also more likely to develop cataracts at a younger age and are twice as likely to develop glaucoma.

Skin problems

At least 75 per cent of people over the age of 64 with diabetes have rough, dry skin. Often, that’s one of the first indications someone has diabetes. One-third of people with diabetes will be diagnosed with skin conditions, which are largely caused by fluctuations in blood glucose levels.

Foot care

You’ve probably heard tales of someone with diabetes losing a foot or limb to the disease. While that is not always the case, foot problems are very common in people with diabetes and can be very serious. Over time, diabetes can damage sensory nerves, especially in the hands and feet. This then makes it more difficult for someone with diabetes to feel a foot injury like a blister or a cut. If left untreated, the injury can quickly become infected – which could lead to serious consequences.

Heart disease and stroke

As if living with diabetes wasn’t enough, the disease brings a very high risk of heart disease and stroke (cerebrovascular disease. In fact, up to 80 per cent of people with diabetes will die as a result of a heart attack or stroke. (Learn more about preventing heart disease by reading “Have a heart” here on Health Local.)

Thyroid disease

If you have diabetes, you may be more prone to thyroid disorders than the general public. That’s because both diabetes and thyroid disease involve the endocrine system, a group of glands that help regulate the body’s metabolism. 

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that appears to be more common in people with Type I diabetes than in the general population. (To learn more about celiac disease, be sure to check out “The truth about celiac disease.”)

Kidney disease

Another very serious complication associated with long-term diabetes is kidney disease. Known as nephropathy, kidney disease is often caused by high blood glucose levels and high blood pressure damaging the kidneys and preventing them from functioning properly. In some cases, the kidneys can even fail completely. The CDA says approximately one-third of people who have had diabetes longer than 15 years develop kidney disease, but good management and regular screening can prevent or delay this from happening.

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.