If you’re over the age of 65, the chances you have or know someone who has diabetes are quite high according to the American Diabetes Association. Roughly 25% of seniors over 65 (12 million) have diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes, and conservative estimates place diabetes as the 7th leading cause of death in the U.S.
What Is Diabetes?
When it comes to unpacking the causes and symptoms of diabetes, it’s important to understand the key players like the pancreas, a large gland that sits just behind the stomach and aids the body in converting glucose into useable energy for cells.
When you eat and drink, the carbohydrates you ingest are broken down in your stomach and their glucose is released into the bloodstream. The rise in blood sugar stimulates beta cells in your pancreas to secrete insulin - it’s insulin’s job to attach to cells in your bloodstream and get them to absorb the glucose for energy.
The more your blood sugar rises, the more insulin your body produces. If there is simply too much glucose in the blood, insulin also helps store it in the liver for later energy needs (i.e. when you exercise).
Seniors with Type I Diabetes are born with this autoimmune condition where their pancreas simply doesn’t produce any (or enough) insulin (due to genetics, viral causes, etc). Type I Diabetes requires regular injections of insulin and constant monitoring to manage balancing blood sugar levels.
Type II Diabetes on the other hand develops overtime when the body is inundated with a diet high in carbs and glucose, and the pancreas slowly loses the ability to produce enough insulin to manage blood sugar levels (or the cells in the body become insulin-resistant).
Side Effects of Diabetes
The danger of diabetes (hyperglycemia) is that when insulin is unable to help your cells absorb glucose, the cells themselves become starved for energy. The glucose buildup in the bloodstream can also negatively impact the heart, eyes, nerves, and kidneys. Type 2 Diabetes typically worsens over time and can lead to:
- Heart disease
- Nerve damage
- Vision loss
- Dental disease
- Kidney disease
- Skin infections
- Foot circulation problems
- Nervous system damage
Symptoms of Diabetes
As more and more glucose builds up in your bloodstream, a myriad of symptoms can present themselves, including:
- Extreme thirst
- Frequent urination
- Difficulty concentrating
- Excessive hunger
- Weight loss
- Frequent infections
- Slow healing sores
- Dark patches of skin (armpits, neck area)
- Blurred Vision
As your body becomes unable to metabolize glucose, some of it will be excreted in urine (sugar in urine is another indicator of diabetes). For older adults with incontinence, diabetes may exacerbate the problem. For a list of the best incontinence supplies, click here.
The body will also look to other sources to fuel cell energy, like your muscles and fat (hence weight loss). Sugar buildup in the blood stream also causes your body to pull fluids from inopportune sources like the eyes, leaving you with vision trouble and feeling very thirsty.
Risk Factors for Diabetes
So what exactly puts you at risk for developing Type II Diabetes? Largely lifestyle decisions play the most important role in preventing and managing Type II Diabetes. These include:
- Poor diet
- Physical inactivity
- Excess weight (especially at the waist area)
Additional risk factors include older age, family history, and certain ethnicities. For example, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Native Americans all have higher rates of diabetes than non-Hispanic Whites and Asian Americans. Men are also slightly more likely to have diabetes than women.
For seniors with Type II Diabetes, lifestyle transformations to aid disease treatment are a must. This may include modifying one’s diet to eliminate unhealthy foods like those high in cholesterol, sodium, unhealthy fats, carbs, and sugar and instead incorporating more vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, lean meats, and whole grains. Foods high in fiber are also beneficial to diabetics as they help stabilize blood sugars.
Increased physical activity can also help someone who is prediabetic prevent themselves from developing Type II Diabetes. Not only does regular exercise help you maintain a healthy weight, but the physical exertion actually stimulates muscles to metabolize glucose helping get it out of your blood stream. Aiming for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day also lowers your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and cognitive decline.
Additional treatments for Type II Diabetes symptoms include regular monitoring of blood sugar with a digital monitoring device, routine visits with your doctor, as well as potential pharmaceutical interventions (prescription drugs).
Final Considerations About Diabetes
Type II Diabetes’ prevalence among seniors is a true public health issue, especially since much of its onset can be avoided with diet, exercise, and avoiding unhealthy behaviors like smoking and excess drinking. If you are concerned about your own risk factors or lifestyle habits that may lead to diabetes, start a dialogue with your doctor right way - early and proactive actions can make a huge difference!