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Diabetes mellitus is a pancreatic disorder caused when the pancreas produces insufficient or no insulin. Insulin is the hormone responsible for the absorption of glucose into cells for energy needs and into the liver and fat cells for storage. When this does not occur, the level of glucose in the blood becomes abnormally high. This causes excessive urination and constant thirst and hunger. When the body cannot store or use glucose, the body weight decreases and fatigue is present. This type of diabetes can also result in disordered lipid metabolism and accelerated degeneration of small blood vessels.

The two other types of diabetes are diabetes bronze and diabetes insipidus. Diabetes bronze is another name for hemochromatosis, a rare disease where excessive amounts of iron are deposited in the tissues such as the liver, pancreas, and skin. The name of this disease comes from the bronze skin coloration and diabetes mellitus that usually develops in people who suffer from this disorder. Diabetes insipidus is a rare condition that is characterized by the passing of enormous quantities of dilute urine and excessive thirst, much like the symptoms of diabetes mellitus, which is a much more common and milder disease.

The two main types of diabetes are type I, which is insulin dependent and the more severe of the two. Type II diabetes is non-insulin dependent and is usually of gradual onset, occurring mainly in people over 40 years of age. Type I diabetes will usually appear first in people under the age of 35 and most commonly between the ages of 10 and 16. In these cases, it is believed that the insulin secreting cells in the pancreas are destroyed as a result of an immune response after a virus infection. When the insulin production ceases almost completely, regular injections of insulin are necessary or the sufferer can lapse into a coma and die. With Type II diabetes, some insulin is produced, but not enough to meet the body's needs, especially if the person is overweight. In most cases, insulin replacement injections are not required since the combination of dietary measures, weight reduction, and oral medication keeps the condition under control.

Diabetes mellitus seems to run in families, even though few of those who inherit the genes responsible for the insulin dependent eventually develop the disease. It is believed that in these cases, the disorder may have occurred as a delayed result of a viral infection that damaged the pancreas years earlier. Non-insulin dependent diabetics, in the majority of cases, who are predisposed to the disease by heredity, will go on to acquire it. Research has shown that obesity is the primary cause of unmasking latent diabetes, but other causes that can unmask or aggravate diabetes are certain illnesses such as pancreatitis and thyrotoxicosis, certain drugs including some corticosteriods and some diuretics, and infections and pregnancy. In the United States alone, approximately 2 people in every 1,000 have insulin dependent diabetes by the age of 20. Non-insulin dependent diabetes is much more common, affecting as many as 2,000 people per every 100,000.