Type 2 diabetes is a heterogeneous condition that is not attributable to a single pathophysiological mechanism. In general, both insulin resistance and impaired insulin secretion are required for the disease to become manifest. Thus, as long as the pancreatic beta cells can compensate for the degree of insulin resistance, glucose tolerance remains normal. Clustering of type 2 diabetes in certain families and ethnic populations points to a strong genetic background for the disease. However, environmental factors such as obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are usually required to unmask the genes. Impaired insulin-stimulated glucose metabolism (particularly non-oxidative) in skeletal muscle represents a key feature of type 2 diabetes and is observed early in the pre-diabetic state. It is not clear, though, whether this represents an inherited defect in muscle or whether it develops secondarily, for example, to abdominal obesity. In favour of the latter hypothesis are findings that abdominal obesity and a low metabolic rate seem to precede the development of insulin resistance in offspring of type 2 diabetic patients. According to the thrifty gene hypothesis, individuals living in an environment with an unstable food supply could increase their probability of survival if they could maximize storage of surplus energy, for instance, as abdominal fat. Exposing this energy-storing genotype to the abundance of food typical of westernized societies is detrimental, causing insulin resistance and, subsequently, type 2 diabetes. There are a number of potential thrifty genes, including those that regulate lipolysis or code for the beta3-adrenergic receptor, the hormone-sensitive lipase, and lipoprotein lipase. Type 2 diabetes develops as a consequence of a collision between thrifty genes and a hostile affluent environment. Insulin resistance is a key trigger for the disease, and optimal management of type 2 diabetes should therefore aim to ameliorate insulin resistance early.
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