Who Is Most At Risk Of Getting Type 2 Diabetes?

No one knows exactly why some people develop Type 2 diabetes but there are risk factors that can make it more likely.

February, 2021


Scientists do not know exactly why some people get Type 2 diabetes, while others do not. However, there are lots of things that could put you at a higher risk.

These include being overweight, having high blood pressure, and having a family member with Type 2 diabetes. Doctors call these your risk factors.

By doing what we can to manage our risk factors, we can all reduce our risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

What is Type 2 diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes happens when the body stops making insulin properly.

Insulin is a hormone that regulates the amount of sugar, or glucose, in the blood. It makes sure there is enough glucose to fuel the body’s cells and tissues, but not so much that it damages the blood vessels. When someone has Type 2 diabetes, this process does not work properly.

Over time, the condition can lead to long-term complications such as heart disease, stroke, kidney problems, and nerve damage.

Around 90% of people with diabetes have Type 2. The rest have Type 1 diabetes. This is an autoimmune condition, caused by a fault in the immune system. People with Type 1 diabetes do not make any insulin at all. They are usually diagnosed in childhood.

No one knows how to prevent or reduce the likelihood of developing Type 1 diabetes.

Who is most at risk of getting Type 2 diabetes?

No one knows exactly why some people develop Type 2 diabetes and others do not. But there are several risk factors or things that can make it more likely.

There are some risk factors we can do something about, like being overweight. These are called modifiable risk factors. Other things, like our age or family history, we can’t help. These are called non-modifiable risk factors.

By doing what we do can to reduce our modifiable risk factors, we can all reduce our chances of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Non-modifiable risk factors

We cannot do anything about our non-modifiable risk factors. But if we understand them, it can help us to plan ahead and to spot warning signs.

Non-modifiable risk factors for Type 2 diabetes include:


Your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes increases as you get older. According to Diabetes UK, you are more at risk if you are white and over 40, or African-Caribbean, Black African, or South Asian and over 25.

Family history

If you have a parent, sibling, or child with Type 2 diabetes, you are between two and six times more likely to develop it yourself.


People of South Asian, African-Caribbean, and Black African descent are two to four times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

Other healthcare conditions

Doctors have shown that people with certain health conditions are more likely to go on to develop Type 2 diabetes. These include:

  • non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • mental health conditions including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression

Modifiable risk factors

Modifiable risk factors are things we can do something about.


Being overweight or obese increases the likelihood of you developing Type 2 diabetes. This is especially true if you carry the excess weight around your middle.

Losing weight can be tough. The best way is to follow a healthy, balanced diet and stay active.

Some doctors recommend the Mediterranean diet, which contains lots of fish, lean meats, fruits vegetables and whole grains. Avoiding fast and processed foods will also help. Small steps can all add up. Try swapping sugary drinks for water or sugar-free cordial, or swapping white bread and pasta with wholemeal versions.

In terms of staying active, the NHS recommends aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week.

If you are just starting out on your fitness journey, try starting small. Aim for a 10-minute walk three times a week, for example, and then build up from there.

It’s also easier to stick with exercise if it is fun. So, try lots of different things to see what you like. It might be walking, swimming, dancing or even gardening.

Sedentary lifestyle

Lots of people spend too much time sitting down – even those who get the recommended levels of exercise.
You might work at a desk for hours without standing up, sit watching TV for long periods, or spend a lot of time driving. Doctors call this a sedentary lifestyle. And it can increase your chances of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Breaking up the sitting time can help. Why not:

  • get up and regularly stretch
  • when working in an office get up to speak to colleagues instead of sending an email
  • break up long car journeys to stretch your legs
  • have walking meetings

Smokers are between 30% and 40% more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than non-smokers. What’s more, smokers who already have Type 2 diabetes are at a greater risk of complications, including nerve damage, heart disease, and stroke.

Giving up is not always easy but there is lots of help out there. Your healthcare team will be able to introduce you to local smoking cessation services.


Too much alcohol is also linked to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Current guidelines advise men and women to avoid drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread out over at least three days.