Diabetes in seniors: get the basics

1 in 4 diabetics don’t know they’re diabetic.


According to the American Diabetes Association, about 25% of Americans age 65 and older are affected by diabetes. One out of four people with diabetes doesn’t even know they have it.


The easiest way to understand diabetes in seniors is to know the role of insulin in your body. When you eat, your foods get converted to sugars, called glucose. Your pancreas releases insulin to carry those sugars to your body’s cells to be used as energy. If your body doesn’t make enough — or any — insulin, glucose stays in your blood and doesn’t reach your cells. This can cause major health problems if left unmanaged.


As you approach the age of 40, make sure you’re getting tested for diabetes every three years — or if you’re older or at a higher risk, once a year.

Risk factors for diabetes in older adults

There are different types of diabetes, and the most common types are Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 diabetes means your body simply does not make insulin. It’s typically diagnosed in children and young adults, and requires daily insulin to survive.

Most people, however, are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which means your body does not make or use insulin as it should. Type 2 diabetes is linked to a variety of genetic factors:


  • Age — Your risk for Type 2 diabetes increases as you get older.
  • Gender — Men have a slightly higher risk of diabetes than women.
  • Race/Ethnicity — African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders are at higher risk.
And lifestyle choices:
  • Weight — Being overweight can increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes.
  • Inactivity — The more physically active you are, the lower your risk is.
  • Smoking/Drinking — If you smoke or drink more than one drink a day (women) or two drinks a day (men), your risk of Type 2 diabetes is greater.

Side effects of diabetes in the elderly

The most common side effects of diabetes in the elderly occur in the eyes and feet. You can develop glaucoma, cataracts or different types of retinopathy, and you might develop nerve damage in your feet. Even more severe complications can occur, such as skin infections, kidney disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. 


But with lifestyle modifications (appropriate diet, exercise and no smoking) and by taking medications prescribed by your physicians, you can keep your risk of complications at a minimum. In fact, it’s critical that diabetics have annual retina, or dilated eye exam.


Protecting Your Eyes


Diabetic retinopathy occurs when high blood sugar damages the blood vessels in the retina (back of the eye). The sooner retinopathy is diagnosed; the more likely treatments will be successful. Almost ninety percent of vision loss can be avoided through controlled blood sugar levels and annual dilated or retinal eye exam.


People with diabetes have a higher risk of developing eye problems that may lead to blindness. The best way to protect your eyes and to keep them healthy is to get a yearly eye exam from an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Eye professionals can detect conditions like cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.


To prevent or minimize damage to your eyesight, see an eye-care professional if you experience any of these symptoms:


  • Blurred vision
  • Trouble telling colors apart
  • Trouble seeing at night or when reading
  • Double vision
  • Eye itching
  • Loss of sharpness of your vision
  • Specks or floaters in your eye
  • Trouble seeing objects in peripherals

Preventing diabetes in seniors

There are a few steps you can take to lower your risk of developing diabetes in your older years:


  • Keep a healthy diet. Well-balanced meals can keep your blood-sugar levels close to normal.
  • Shed some weight. Dropping excess pounds can reduce your risk of complications from diabetes.
  • Be active. Improve strength, flexibility and endurance with 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week.
  • Reduce stress. Keep a regular amount of sleep and relaxation as part of your day.
  • Know your numbers. Keep a close record of your blood-sugar levels to stay in control.

Get Tested Regularly


Now that you’re aware of how negatively diabetes can affect your body, a little test every few years is worth it. If you’re 40 years of age or older, you should be tested every three years. But if you carry a higher risk, you should get tested every year.


To learn more about diabetes, its symptoms and how to prevent or treat it, talk with your doctor or visit diabetes.org.

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Formerly known as Partners in Primary Care and Family Physicians Group, our new name CenterWell reflects our passion for improving the lives of seniors.  Our team is here and ready to help answer any questions you may have.