Diabetes is one of the chronic conditions medical professionals have warned us about for years. A diet relying too much on processed foods and added sugars, lack of physical activity, and a predominantly sedentary lifestyle have increased the number of people with diabetes. And the number keeps on rising.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2016, diabetes was the direct cause of death for 1.6 million people and high blood sugar for another 2.2 million. When comparing it to other conditions, diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death.
Because of the alarmingly growing prevalence and severe causes diabetes can have on our health, it is essential to find the right information and learn about this chronic condition. Read on to find out more about diabetes, how it affects different populations, and whether diabetes is more common in older people.
What Is Diabetes?
Our bodies need to transform and break down the food we eat into molecules used by our cells for energy. These molecules are called glucose, and diabetes is a disease that affects our body's ability to utilize glucose, which leads to unusually high levels in the bloodstream.
Insulin is a hormone that plays an essential role in transporting glucose in cells, where it is used for energy. When you have diabetes, your body may not be able to produce insulin, or it is not using it the right way. The results are higher blood glucose levels, which in the long run, can lead to many health problems, including weight gain, high blood pressure, eye problems, nerve damage, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease.
When your body is unable to use insulin properly, that condition is called insulin resistance. It is mostly the result of poor diet and lifestyle and can be treated with the proper adjustments and medication. The pancreas is in charge of producing insulin, and sometimes it fails at its job. Unfortunately, in those cases, people with this type of diabetes must take insulin injections or pills to properly metabolize sugars from their diet.
Different Types of Diabetes
As you can see, diabetes has several manifestations and types, and proper diagnosis is essential for adequate treatment. We'll briefly cover type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and prediabetes and explain the difference between these conditions. We'll also help you understand how the prevalence of these diseases changes with age and whether older people are more prone to developing one of these conditions.
Type 1 Diabetes
With type 1 diabetes, your body produces no to very little insulin. The most common cause for this is the confusion of your immune system as it recognizes insulin-producing pancreas cells as invaders. So, as your immune system is trying to protect you, it destroys your ability to regulate blood sugar levels properly.
Type 1 diabetes is less prevalent than type 2, and according to the CDC, 5-10% of all people with diabetes are diagnosed with type 1. (2) It is mostly diagnosed during childhood or teenage years, and people have to deal with this condition for the rest of their lives. Although it is primarily diagnosed in the early years, there have been reports of later onset of type 1 diabetes. So if you are a senior who didn't struggle with this condition previously, the chances are that you should be more worried about type 2 diabetes.
However, keep in mind that type 1 diabetes can worsen with age and cause organ damage due to high blood glucose's long-term effects. These issues are the most common:
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is more prevalent, and it accounts for 90-95% of all diabetes cases. If it's caught during the prediabetes stage, it is treatable, and with the proper approach, you can easily prevent the situation from developing further.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body produces insulin, but it is unable to use it properly for some reason. That results in higher blood glucose levels, which can have many negative impacts. Your pancreas works extra hard trying to make more insulin to clear blood sugar, which leads to insulin resistance over time.
Unlike type 1 that mostly begins at a young age, the onset of type 2 diabetes is more prevalent In middle-aged and older adults. The symptoms appear gradually over time, and the most common ones include:
The problem is the slow onset of symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Adults and particularly older people dismiss them as a part of getting older. If left untreated, diabetes type 2 has similar effects as type 1. However, people with this condition are also more prone to certain cancers and Alzheimer's disease. (4)
The most common risk factors for type 2 diabetes include:
As you can see, diabetes in older adults is more common. In fact, around 10% of the US's adult population has type 2 diabetes, and that number rises to 25% in older adults aged over 65. (5,6) But before we get into specifics on why this is the case, let's first cover the prediabetic stage.
If you get diagnosed with prediabetes, it means that your blood glucose is higher than it should be. However, it is not consistently high enough to be interpreted as type 2 diabetes. Your body is slowly starting to get less efficient with utilizing insulin and sugars, and it is an alarm that you should do something about it.
According to the American Diabetes Association, 1 in 4 adults has prediabetes, and that number jumps to 1 in 2 if we are talking about older people. (7) These numbers are truly alarming, especially when you consider that 1 in 4 seniors already has type 2 diabetes.
The risk factors include inactivity, sedentary lifestyle, metabolic problems, being overweight or obese, sleep problems, genetics, and others. If doctors have diagnosed you with prediabetes, it doesn't have to mean you will develop type 2 diabetes, but it does require immediate action.
The most common lifestyle interventions include eating better, exercising more, and losing excess weight.
Why Are Older People More at Risk of Developing Diabetes?
As we've seen before, type 2 diabetes has a lot to do with lifestyle habits. And that's exactly what changes as we age. Older adults become less active, and they tend to move and exercise less on average. That is one of the significant factors for the onset of diabetes, but also weight gain.
Weight gain happens because people have less time to cook healthy and focus on a proper diet, and in combination with less activity, it's a shortcut to diabetes. On top of it, muscle mass has a lot to do with regulating blood sugar, and it certainly decreases with age.
Another thing that older people have working against them is simple biology. Our bodies are not perfect machines, and they wear down over time. Our pancreas gradually produces less insulin, and it may result in diabetes in older people. Seniors can also experience many other health conditions and have weaker immune systems, which significantly increases diabetes risk or worsens the effects over time.
Diabetes Symptoms in Seniors
Type 2 diabetes is usually asymptomatic for years, or people don't recognize symptoms as they gradually worsen. Here is what you need to pay attention to:
How Do Doctors Diagnose Diabetes?
If you suspect you may have diabetes, you should bring it up with your doctor. They will discuss your lifestyle habits and figure out whether you are in one of the risk categories. Based on your answers, they may suggest one of the following tests to determine whether you have diabetes.
This test allows your doctor to measure your blood glucose levels over the last three months. Because of that, it is the most reliable measure, and this test is most commonly used when checking for diabetes and prediabetes.
The results are shown numerically, and the percentage reflects your blood sugar levels. Anything below 5.7 is considered healthy, while the range between 5.7 and 6.5 is characteristic for the prediabetic stage. Levels above that percentage suggest that you are one of the people with diabetes, and your doctor will work out a suitable treatment plan accordingly.
Fasting Plasma Glucose Test
These tests check your current blood glucose levels. They need to be scheduled in advance, as you are supposed to fast for at least eight hours before taking the test.
Random Plasma Glucose Test
Similar to the fasting plasma glucose test, this test checks your blood glucose levels at a certain point in time. However, there is no fasting beforehand, and it is usually performed when you show diabetes symptoms, and doctors need to act fast.
Diabetes Management for Seniors
Unfortunately, there is no definite cure for diabetes, and management is performed mostly by you with support from your healthcare providers. It may be challenging at times, but your health should always come first.
Your doctor will prescribe the necessary medication and insulin pills and injections depending on your condition. You should follow their treatment plan and discuss what you can do to improve your situation. Besides the medication, management of diabetes in adults includes:
Older people are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes because they become less active, their muscle mass decreases, immune systems become less efficient, and overall body functioning is lower. That's why we see an increase in the prevalence of diabetes in the older population.
It can affect the everyday life of people with diabetes and make it a little harder. Blood glucose fluctuations increase the risk of fainting or lightheadedness. When left untreated, this chronic condition can lead to renal damage, heart conditions including heart attack, eye problems, nerve damage, and more.
Older people with type 2 diabetes need to take their medications according to doctor's recommendations. They also need to make regular health checks, monitor their blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels closely, improve their diets, ditch smoking, and exercise as much as possible to reduce the risk of complications.
Below 5.7% on the A1C test, below 99 mg/dL on the Fasting Blood Glucose Test, or below 140 mg/dL on Glucose Tolerance Test.
The Bottom Line
Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects the way your body uses sugar as energy. It can affect people of all ages, but diabetes type 2 is more common among older individuals. Older people with diabetes need to manage other risk factors and make lifestyle changes to minimize further health complications.
Management of diabetes for adults over 65 includes exercising more, regular visits to the doctor's office, eating a healthier diet, taking prescribed medication, and monitoring blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure regularly.
As you can see, many seniors live with prediabetes and diabetes, so even if you get diagnosed with diabetes, it's not the end of the world. Just stick with your doctor's recommendations, and everything should be fine.