What to Know About Diabetes and Aging

October 27,2023 |
older woman holding water bottle

Our bodies undergo various changes as we age, and our health becomes increasingly important to maintain. One health condition that is of particular concern among older adults is diabetes. Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects the body's ability to regulate blood sugar levels. It's a prevalent condition, and its impact on aging individuals is significant, especially those with underlying health issues. Here, we'll explore everything you need to know about diabetes and aging and how to live a healthy lifestyle.

How Common is Type 2 Diabetes in Older Adults?

About 25% of Americans 65 and older are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, but it's estimated that an additional 4.7% are undiagnosed. The reality is that people with type 2 diabetes may have some warning signs, but things often go undiagnosed at later ages. Diabetes-related complications or symptoms often mimic other issues that increase in prevalence as we age. Vision loss, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and other underlying medical conditions can mask the symptoms of diabetes among older adults. However, the older you are, the higher your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. And when blood sugar levels go unregulated for too long, you have a higher risk of complications. That's why it's important to talk to your doctor and monitor your health closely as you age.

Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes by Age

With that being said, some risk factors increase the likelihood of developing diabetes. Your risk of diabetes increases if you:

  • Have high blood pressure
  • Are overweight
  • Are obese
  • Have a family history of diabetes
  • Are over 55 years old
  • Had gestational diabetes
  • Have polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Have prediabetes
  • Smoke
  • Live a sedentary lifestyle
  • Have sarcopenia (decreased muscle mass)

    To help reduce your risk, it's important to work with your doctor and make some lifestyle changes. For example, incorporating more exercise (aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity, five days a week) can help you lose extra weight and maintain more stable blood sugar levels. You should also reduce your sugar, salt, and processed foods intake. Instead, focus on eating a healthy diet with plenty of lean protein, healthy fats, and a controlled amount of carbohydrates.

    Can Type 1 Diabetes Affect Aging Individuals?

    In the past, it was believed that adults developed type 2 diabetes and children or teens developed type 1 diabetes. However, we now know that diabetes can affect people of all ages, which is why early detection and treatment is essential. This is especially true for latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA). Some experts see LADA as a specific offset of type 1 diabetes in older people (over 40), while others don't recognize it as anything other than type 1.

    Either way, type 1 diabetes can occur in older people, and if it does, it may be associated with more serious complications. This is because the disease can go undetected for months without individuals starting insulin. This can cause complications related to diabetes, which may or may not be misdiagnosed as other conditions or simply as a side effect of aging.

    If you're aged 65 or older and are experiencing any symptoms such as increased thirst, an increase in the frequency of using the bathroom, weight loss, or general fatigue, don't write it off as something related to your age. Instead, see your healthcare provider and undergo the necessary diagnostic tests.

    Symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes

    Diabetes symptoms can range from mild to severe, which often makes them go unnoticed. Some of the most common symptoms to be aware of include the following:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased urination
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Slow-healing wounds
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Headaches
  • Tingling sensations in hands or feet
  • Blurred vision
  • Gum problems
  • Dry mouth

    People with prediabetes may also experience similar symptoms. However, prediabetes can be reversed when caught in time. Therefore, it's important to let your doctor know if you experience any worrisome symptoms or changes in your health. If you're diagnosed with prediabetes, your doctor will work with you to create a management plan that can help improve your insulin sensitivity and decrease the likelihood of the condition advancing to diabetes. There is also a diabetes prevention program that your doctor may recommend if you have several risk factors or a family history.

    The Risk of Heart Disease and Other Complications of Diabetes in Older Adults

    The one positive aspect of people diagnosed with diabetes in their later years is that as long as it's caught early and blood glucose levels are managed, the risk for serious complications actually decreases. This is because the longer you have diabetes—even when managing it well—the more time it has to impact your body.

    Conversely, the longer you experience high blood sugar, the more damage is done to blood vessels and nearby organs, resulting in kidney damage or failure, diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage), heart disease, foot ulcers, and more. When compared to individuals diagnosed with diabetes later in life, it was found that those diagnosed before 40 experienced more rapid damage to insulin-making cells, more complications, and overall shorter lifespans.

    Regardless, there are still risks, which is why treatment of diabetes is so essential. The biggest risk is that, as you age, you may experience other health conditions that can complicate your diabetes management plan. For example, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can make it more difficult to keep your diabetes under control. Both of these things also drastically increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, which also increases in older adults with diabetes.

    Your risk of experiencing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) also increases as you age, and the symptoms of hypoglycemia may become more intense the older you get. This can make life with diabetes a little scary, especially if you live alone or are unable to address symptoms quickly. Therefore, it's important to learn the symptoms and have a plan to help you stay safe.

    Other complications of diabetes in older adults include:

  • Kidney disease
  • Stroke
  • Narrowed blood vessels
  • Nerve damage
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Vision loss and eye problems
  • Hearing loss
  • Functional limitations
  • Increased risk of falls or injury
  • Skin infections
  • Premature death

Ask your doctor about any steps you can take to help reduce your risk of diabetes-related complications and consider working with an endocrinologist to create a more targeted treatment plan.

Diabetes Management and Treatment for Aging Individuals

If you experience any symptoms of diabetes, you'll want to see your doctor to undergo some tests. You may be administered an A1C test or an oral glucose tolerance test in addition to a regular blood test. Your doctor will give you instructions and tell you whether you need to fast or not, but make sure you follow them to get an accurate result.

Individuals diagnosed with diabetes will likely need to use insulin or one or more medications to prevent complications. You'll also need to regularly check your blood sugar.

Aging adults who may have difficulty with their treatment plans may need collaborative care to help reduce the risk of issues. They need to be able to check blood sugar levels, administer their medications, and seek help if additional complications occur. However, lifestyle changes can also make a huge difference, and type 2 diabetes may even be able to be reversed. The important thing is to work with your doctor to determine the best course of action and never be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Being diagnosed with diabetes later in life can result in unique mental or emotional challenges, but you can still live a fulfilling life. The best way to ensure that you’re managing your diabetes is to eat a healthy, nutritious diet, limit alcohol consumption, get plenty of exercise, prioritize a healthy sleep schedule, and make sure that you’re managing any signs of diabetes distress.

To help you get the most out of your life, manage your diabetes with ease, and avoid any long-term complications, Byram Healthcare has a range of diabetes management products, including our Caring Touch at Home™ Program. Browse our product catalog today and get your diabetes supplies delivered directly to your door.