What are your chances of knowing someone with diabetes? What is happening in the body of someone with type I diabetes? What are the symptoms of diabetes?

What is type I diabetes?
Peggy travels to the Mayo Clinic to learn about diabetes.
Segment length: 6:08


Diabetes mellitus and its complications affect over 12 million people in this country--that's one in 20 Americans--and five million adults don't even know they have the disease.

The segment shows Dane, who has type I diabetes, the kind of diabetes in which the pancreas secretes little or no insulin. Dane's body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, but because he doesn't have enough insulin, the glucose can't leave the bloodstream and get into his body's cells. The blood carrying this excess sugar passes through the kidneys and causes an increased loss of body fluids. This need for replacement fluids leaves Dane feeling excessively thirsty. To feel good and live an active life, Dane injects insulin twice a day, tests his blood sugars, and balances his diet and exercise.

The cause of type I diabetes is not known for certain. The greatest evidence points to an autoimmune process that destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. It is unclear whether diabetes is inherited, but it is believed that some individuals may be genetically susceptible to getting diabetes. In these susceptible individuals, an environmental factor such as a viral infection may trigger the autoimmune process that leads to type I diabetes. Type II diabetes, in which the body makes insulin but not enough, is associated with advancing age and obesity.

Almost all cases of type I diabetes occur before the age of 40, with a peak incidence of around age 14. However, of all the people who have diabetes, only about 10% are type I; the rest are type II. Many people with type II diabetes don't have to inject insulin, but can control it by eating properly or taking medications that stimulate insulin production. Both types of diabetes, however, require balancing acts: Diet must be varied; food intake must be scheduled; and sugar consumption must be moderate.

Promising medical advancements may make life for those with diabetes easier and less restrictive. Pancreatic transplants and Islets of Langerhans transplants might eliminate the need for insulin injections for some patients; computer-controlled blood-sugar monitoring and insulin administration may improve the day-to-day lives of many people who have diabetes.


Consider this statement from Diabetes Management: The Balancing Act (see Resources): "Diabetes, in the end, plays no larger a part in the lives of . . . people than they have chosen to give it. They choose instead to live their lives in balance."


beta cells the cells in the Islets of Langerhans that make insulin
carbohydrates any of a group of compounds that share a general biochemical structure containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen; includes sugars and starches
glucose the sugar derived from the breakdown of carbohydrates and starches that the body uses for fuel
diabetes mellitus a disorder characterized by the inadequate production or utilization of insulin
insulin a hormone produced by the beta cells of the pancreatic islets that enables sugar in the blood to enter the body cells
Islets of Langerhans clusters of cells that compose the endocrine portion of the pancreas and secrete insulin
pancreas a large elongated gland situated behind the stomach; secretes pancreatic juices, insulin, and glucagon for the regulation of carbohydrate metabolism


Almonte, P. and T. Desmond. (1991) The facts about diabetes. New York: Crestwood House.

American Diabetes Association. (1987) Diabetes in the family. New York: Prentice Hall.

Moynihan, P.M., B. Balik, S. Eliason, and B. Haig. (1988) Diabetes youth curriculum. Wayzata, MN: Diabetes Center.

Olsen, M.E. (1992) Diabetes management: The balancing act. Mayo (Spring): 3-14.

Additional sources of information:

American Association of Diabetes Educators
500 N. Michigan Ave. Suite 1400
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 661-1700

American Diabetes Association
Information Service Center
P.O. Box 25757
1660 Duke Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 549-1500
(800) 232-3472

Main Activity

It's Not My Fault!
Find out more about the causes of diabetes.

This card game will help students understand the cause-and-effect relationships of diabetes, that those with type I diabetes are not responsible for having diabetes, and that there is treatment.


  1. On separate cards, list plausible causes of diabetes, symptoms, statements for understanding it, and treatments, along with some inaccurate ideas about the causes of diabetes. Use the INSIGHTS and VOCABULARY sections as resources for your listings. Here are some examples:
  2. Make enough cards so that there is one for each student. You may duplicate information on more than one card, but do not make more than three cards with any one fact.
  3. Divide the class into four teams. Have each student chose a card and take it back to his or her team. The objective is for each team to gather a set of cards that correctly explains how diabetes comes about, its symptoms, and treatment.
  4. RULES: Any member may trade a card with a member of another team. There can be only one member per team on his or her feet at any one time. Set a time limit, or play until one team gets a complete set of cards and wins. The winning team must explain the statements on its set of cards.


1. Why is it important to realize that type I diabetes is not caused by a person's actions or by "catching it"? What health problems are a direct result of individual behaviors and choices?

2. If you had diabetes, what would you have to do differently? What if you had just taken your shot of insulin and had eaten your dinner, and then you were invited out for pizza? What if you were so tired, you wanted to sleep until noon on Saturdays?

Many people who have any kind of permanent disease or ailment don't like to be labeled with the name of the disease. They may prefer to say, "I have diabetes," rather than, "I am a diabetic." Why is this semantic difference important to consider? How might this be extended to "epileptics," "paraplegics," or "asthmatics"?

Invite some people who have diabetes into your classroom to view the segment with the class. If possible, your guests might be willing to show how they inject insulin and test for blood-sugar levels.

List on the board the following famous people who have or had diabetes:

Are there more? Are there famous people with epilepsy? Arthritis? Learning differences? Does this information matter?

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