Diabetes: The Silent Killer

Question:  Am I at greater risk of becoming diabetic just because I’m 65?

Answer: According to the American Geriatric Society, diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases related to aging. More than 40 percent of all diabetics in the U.S. are aged 65 and above, and this current percentage is expected to increase.

Diabetes is a serious disease in which levels of blood glucose (often called blood sugar) are too high. Although glucose is needed for body energy, an excess can create a health risk. An older adult who develops diabetes is more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, stroke, or other complications, including blindness, kidney disease, gum infections and amputation.

Diabetes has two types. In Type 1, the pancreas does not produce enough insulin — the hormone that controls the body’s use of glucose or blood sugar. In Type 2, which affects almost 90 percent of older diabetics, the body cannot effectively utilize available insulin.

A diagnosis of pre-diabetes does not mean the patient is diabetic, but that the patient’s blood glucose levels are higher than normal. It serves as a medical warning of what might be in store. Older adults who are pre-diabetic and do not take specific steps to decrease noted risks are more likely to develop diabetes within 10 years.

Luckily, most people who have been diagnosed as pre-diabetic have the power and tools to reduce their chances of developing diabetes and its resulting complications. The Diabetes Prevention Program, a recent study by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, concluded that pre-diabetic older adults can protect themselves by:

  • Eating a healthy diet that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats and nonfat dairy products. Eliminate foods high in fat and sugar.
  • Exercising regularly to help lower blood-sugar levels. Walking for about 20 to 30 minutes three times a week significantly improves the body’s ability to use glucose. Other good exercise options for older adults may include armchair exercises, tai chi and swimming.
  • Taking care of your teeth and gums by brushing twice a day, flossing daily and visiting a dentist at least twice yearly.
  • Examining your feet every day and reporting any new sores, blisters or discolored toes to your health-care provider. Blood vessel and circulation problems associated with diabetes can result in serious foot problems.
  • Having a thorough eye exam by an ophthalmologist every 1 to 2 years. Blood-vessel and circulation problems associated with diabetes can severely affect one’s eyes.

Because most older adults who develop diabetes do not experience its classic symptoms, it has become a chronic illness that is under-diagnosed.  It is important for all older adults to maintain yearly medical check-ups, and to contact their treating physicians should any physical changes or new difficulties arise. Early diagnosis and proper management help seniors to stay healthy and independent.

For a free copy of Small Steps. Big Awards. Your GAME PLAN to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes, visit the National Diabetes Education Program at ndep.nih.gov