Defeat Diabetes Month: A Look at Diabetes and Aging

By Dr. Joanna Ira, Geriatrician at Legacy Stafford Fountains Clinic

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. April has been declared Defeat Diabetes Month to raise awareness about the impact of the disease among our nation’s aging population. According to the American Diabetes Association, a quarter of Americans over the age of 65 have diabetes and half of older adults have prediabetes with the numbers expected to climb in the coming decades.

Diabetes means there is too much sugar (or glucose) in your blood.  This happens when your body doesn’t produce enough of a hormone called insulin or it simply doesn’t respond well to insulin. Seniors are at greater risk for developing diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is most commonly diagnosed in middle aged and older people and in fact, the rates of type 2 diabetes increase with age. Patients with type 2 diabetes produce insulin in their bodies but are unable to use it effectively. Over time they become more and more insulin resistant causing the pancreas to produce less of the hormone.

One of the reasons for this is because insulin resistance ramps up with age. Factors that contribute to insulin resistance are decreased muscle mass, reduced physical activity and increased weight in older people. Lifelong eating and lifestyle habits have exposed elderly patients to sugar longer than others who are younger, so their chances of developing high blood glucose levels and ultimately type 2 diabetes is greater.

The aging population is also more at risk for diabetes-related complications like kidney failure and heart disease than younger diabetes patients. Much like high blood pressure, diabetes often presents without any symptoms. Unfortunately, when symptoms do arise, it can be easy to dismiss them as merely signs of aging.

Type 2 diabetes symptoms to watch out for include: fatigue, increased hunger or thirst, losing weight without trying, frequent urination and blurred vision. You may also develop skin infections or discover it taking much longer than usual to recover from cuts and bruises. Long-term complications from uncontrolled diabetes can lead to stroke, heart attack, nerve damage, kidney failure, blindness and hearing impairment.

Diabetes also boosts the risk of serious complications if you get sick with the flu, especially if you’re over 65. That’s because both diabetes and age weaken your immune system, making you less able to fight infections. In serious cases, complications can lead to hospitalization and even death.

Fortunately, there are many ways for seniors to manage their diabetes and live a healthier life. Those include:

  • Maintaining a healthy diet.
  • Staying active.
  • Monitoring your blood sugar.
  • Take your medications.
  • Reduce stress levels.
  • Request immunizations appropriate for your age from pharmacy or Legacy provider

At Legacy Community Health our Senior Care team is committed to meeting all the health and wellness needs of seniors—and to helping each patient live a healthier, fuller life. We offer a wide variety of services including annual wellness exams, care for chronic conditions like diabetes, and immediate connection to specialty care. To learn more or to schedule an appointment with a Legacy geriatrician, visit our website or call 832-548-5000.