You can have type 1 diabetes and not have any symptoms

17 October 2022 dot 6-minute read
Healthy Body Feature Diabetes Live Well Illnesses and diseases
An estimated 184,000 children and adolescents under the age of 20 are living with type 1 diabetes in Southeast Asia. (Credit: Getty Images)
When people talk of diabetes, they often refer to type 2, which is common among adults. But there is also the lesser-known type 1 diabetes, which often occurs in children, teens and young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms can take months or years to appear, but when they do, they can be severe.
This was the case with the son of Olympian Dame Valerie Adams, one of New Zealand's iconic sports figures who was appointed as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to athletics in 2017.
In July 2020, she was a mother in a panic because her toddler son, Kepaleli, was frequently urinating and lethargic for a week. Doctors confirmed her suspicions when she took him to the hospital – he had type 1 diabetes.  
"It was a bit of a shock to the system for us as a family," she recalls.
Dame Valerie's son is one of 460 million people who are living with this condition worldwide. Type 1 diabetes can affect people at any age but is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. According to the World Heart Federation (WHF), the prevalence of type 1 diabetes is also increasing across the world.

What is the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes?

When you eat, your body breaks down your food and converts it into sugar or glucose. When that blood sugar becomes high, your pancreas takes action by releasing insulin. Type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes happens when something goes wrong with insulin production. 
People who assume diabetes happens from overeating sugar may have type 2 in mind. In type 2, the pancreas produces insulin, but it is not working as it should. Lifestyle changes such as diet and fitness help type 2 diabetics avoid insulin injections, which cannot be said of those with type 1.
The immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas at the onset of type 1 diabetes. The damage it causes prevents the pancreas from making insulin. The result of little to zero insulin raises blood sugar to dangerous levels. Scientists still cannot say what triggers the immune system to attack the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. 
So, type 1 diabetes treatment will always begin with daily insulin injections to normalise blood sugar and avoid severe health complications, such as heart and kidney damage. Once you're diagnosed with this condition, it will be with you for the rest of your life.

Signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes may be diagnosed with a random blood sugar test. (Credit: Getty Images)
Type 1 diabetes afflicts children the most and often occurs in kids between the ages of 7 and 12 years old. It is important to note that this autoimmune condition can start at any age. Dame Valerie's son was only a year old when he was diagnosed.
Another challenge of type 1 diabetes is you or your child can have it without showing any symptoms. In the case of Kepaleli, the symptoms appeared without warning and were considered serious from the onset.
Apart from frequent urination and feeling tired often, the overall symptoms include: 
  • Dehydration
  • Wetting the bed at night, even when toilet trained
  • More thirsty than usual
  • Constantly feeling hungry and eating more, yet losing weight 
  • Irritability or mood changes
Consult with your doctor as well if:
  • Your baby has a severe diaper rash
  • Your daughter has a yeast infection
  • Your child has fruity breath and fast breathing
  • Your child experiences blurred vision, abdominal pain and nausea
Remember: Not all diabetics will have the same symptoms.

Asians at high risk of type 2 diabetes

China, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia are the top five countries for the number of adults with type 2 diabetes in the Western Pacific region. (Credit: Getty Images)
According to the International Federation of Diabetes (IFD), Asia is home to 55 per cent of the global population with diabetes. In fact, in China and Malaysia, one in four adults has type 2 diabetes.
Asians are at considerable risk even when they are not obese. Why? The CDC points to visceral fat "wrapped around abdominal organs" as a potential culprit. Having too much of this fat in your belly increases the risk of diabetes.
But belly fat does not always reflect on the weighing scale. You may be at an ideal weight based on your height and yet also borderline diabetic. The CDC advises Asians to calculate their BMI and get tested for high blood sugar if their BMI is 23 or higher.
Health experts also point to the Asian diet and lifestyle for the number of cases of diabetes in the region. White rice and other refined grains rank high in the glycemic index, causing the blood sugar to shoot up. A fast-food diet means the consumption of saturated and trans fats. Smoking, inactivity, lack of sleep and even air pollution may increase the risk of diabetes.

Living with diabetes

Type 1 diabetes can run in families. (Credit: Getty Images)
Unfortunately, risk factors of type 1 diabetes are less clear than type 2. Further research is required to understand the causes of type 1 diabetes and why it happens to certain people and ages. Type 1 diabetes cannot be predicted, but you or your loved ones do not have to face an uncertain future. People with type 1 diabetes can work, travel, raise a family and lead fulfilling lives. 
You cannot prevent type 1 diabetes from happening but knowing how to live with it is crucial. Take charge of your health and your family by taking care of your financial wellbeing. That means setting up a financial safety net that includes critical illness protection.
Treating diabetes, whether type 1 or type 2, will require preparing finances and changing food choices, physical activity and most importantly, mindset.
It is important to make healthier food choices, such as:
  • Choosing healthier carbohydrates (whole grains, vegetables, fruits)
  • Reducing salt
  • Eating less red and processed meat
  • Choosing healthier fats (avocados, fish oil, olive oil)
  • Limiting your alcohol intake
  • Drinking water instead of juice and soda
Physical activity is also vital for managing diabetes. Committing to being active most days of the week can help. Start slowly by taking 10-minute walks three times a day. Then increase your exercise to 30 minutes of brisk walking five times each week.
Good stress management can also aid in maintaining your health when you are diabetic. Stress can raise your blood sugar, so find ways to keep your stress levels low. For example, try deep breathing, meditating, working on your hobbies or listening to your favourite music.
According to Dame Valerie, the first step to living with diabetes is to "acknowledge that there are changes that need to happen." 
The AIA Vitality New Zealand ambassador shares her family's experience with type 1 diabetes with the hope that her generation will be able to break the cycle. She is helping her community together with AIA, which has committed to helping one billion people Live Healthier, Longer, Better Lives by 2030.  
"Get a good community around you who will support you in your journey. It's not going to be easy, but one you won't regret," says Dame Valerie. Learn how to Join the Journey today!
International Diabetes Federation. 2021. Diabetes in Western Pacific. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
International Diabetes Federation. 2021. Diabetes Around the World. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022. What Is Type 1 Diabetes. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022. Diabetes and Asian American People. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
Stanford Children's Health. Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus in Children. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
National University Health System. 2022. Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (Children). [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
Asian Diabetes Prevention Initiative. Why are Asians at High Risk? [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
World Heart Federation. Diabetes. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.