Diabetes has quickly become an epidemic in today's senior community, with nearly 25% of adults over the age of 60 living with this disease. Millions of seniors from all over the country, with all different backgrounds constantly find themselves living with this disease. While diabetes can be a difficult diagnosis to live with, the good news is there are ways to manage the disease so that any senior can continue to live a relatively normal life with diabetes.
With this in mind, it is important for seniors, family members and caregivers alike understand diabetes and most importantly understand how to safely live with diabetes.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is one of the most common illnesses in the world, yet many people today do not know what diabetes really is. Simply put, diabetes is a disorder that disrupts the way your body uses sugar. Diabetes is characterized by high glucose levels in your blood. Typically, these high glucose levels come from the body's inability to produce and use insulin, which is a hormone that is created in the pancreas. Insulin controls the body's glucose levels.
There are two types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Type 2 is more common in adults and is what most seniors likely have when they are diagnosed with diabetes. More than 90% of adults have type 2 diabetes. However, about 5%-10% of diabetic adults today do have type 1. In type 1 diabetes, the problem is that the body makes little or no insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the problem is that the body’s cells do not respond to insulin or the body does not make enough insulin; or both.
How to Diagnose Diabetes
In order to get an official diabetes diagnosis, seniors will need to visit a doctor in order to have several blood tests done. These blood tests may include an "A1C", "fasting plasma glucose", or a "2-hour oral glucose tolerance" test. This is the best and most efficient way to determine whether someone has diabetes. However, there are some signs and symptoms of diabetes that may be present that can act as warning signs.
Seniors who experience these symptoms should visit the doctor immediately for testing. The faster seniors can get a diagnosis, the better off they will be. A doctor will be able to help seniors begin a management plan. While there is no cure for diabetes, learning to manage this condition can go a long way in ensuring that seniors are able to live a healthy and balanced life.
If left unmanaged, diabetes can lead to several other very serious health issues including:
- Kidney issues
- Heart disease or heart attack
- Hearing loss
- Worsening vision or even partial blindness
- Foot issues/lower extremity amputation
- Narrowing arteries
The chances of developing these issues only increases the older diabetic adults get which is why it is so important that seniors take action after a diagnosis and start to manage their disease right away.
Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes
- Excessive thirst and drinking a large amount of water
- Extreme hunger even after eating
- Frequent and unprecedented urination
- Unexplained fatigue
- Rapid weight loss
These side effects all happen because the body is not producing enough insulin.
Symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes
With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas is either not making enough insulin or it doesn't use the insulin it has properly. Most adults over 40 who are diabetic suffer from this type of diabetes. Here are the ways to spot signs of this diabetes in seniors.
- Excessive thirst or hunger
- Frequent urination
- Heart disease
- Kidney issues
- Weight loss
- Blurred vision
- Sudden depression
- Slow healing wounds
- Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
How to Manage Diabetes
While there is no cure for diabetes, there are ways to manage this condition. Two of the best things that diabetic adults can do when they have diabetes is to exercise three or more times a week and try to eat healthy, balanced meals. Exercise can significantly improve the body's ability to use glucose, not to mention it can ward off some of the other side effects of diabetes and lower a senior's risk of developing heart disease or stroke. Seniors who exercise should check their glucose levels before and after they exercise and drink plenty of water.
A proper diet is also important as well. Seniors need to be diligent of what they are eating and when they are eating to help their bodies maintain proper glucose levels. Eating healthy, balanced meals, avoiding sugars and fried foods, and eating constant small meals throughout the day are all ways for seniors to manage their diabetes. Limiting carbs, salts and processed foods can also go a long way. For many seniors, the key is to simply control their portions and to start eating several small meals every few hours instead of sitting down for one large meal two or three times a day. Consistently eating the same times every day is important for some people, especially those who take long-acting insulin. For seniors who live in nursing homes with set eating schedules, accommodations can typically be made to adhere to these dietary restrictions.
However, the most prevalent way for seniors to manage their diabetes is to control it with prescription drugs and insulin. As seniors age, their bodies naturally make less insulin, so no matter how many medications they take or how diligent they are with their diet and exercise, many seniors still need to take insulin injections. Depending on the individual situation, some seniors may need a fast-acting insulin injection, while others may require the long-acting injections, or both. It is important that seniors who are struggling with memory loss, Alzheimer's or dementia are getting assistance with their insulin injections. If they are receiving home care, they need a caregiver to remind them. If they are living in an assisted living community, they should have a nurse or care provider manage their insulin shots and make sure they aren't forgetting this important treatment.
Ultimately, for today's senior's living with diabetes it all comes down to making the conscious choice to make healthy eating choices, stick with the insulin plan and to stay active as much as possible. Monitoring your diet by eating healthy, eliminating junk food, quitting smoking, and consistently checking blood glucose levels several times a day, are all ways in which seniors can lessen the severity of their diabetes and ensure they are living healthy, active lives.
Inzucchi, S., E., Nathan D.M., Wolfsdorf, J.I, &Mulder, J.E (2019). Clinical presentation, diagnosis, and initial evaluation of diabetes mellitus in adults. Retrieved from: www.uptodate.com: Wolters Kluwer.