Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects how the body converts food to energy. The disease has likely been around since the beginning of time, with one record dating the first mention of it as far back as 1550 BC in the Ebers Papyrus..
In more recent times, in 1899 German doctors Joseph von Mering and Oscar Minkowsky are credited with making the discovery of diabetes when they noticed flies attracted to a sweet smell around a laboratory dog’s urine, indicating the presence of the disease.
An estimated 33% of adults age 65 or older have diabetes. Currently, it is the eighth leading cause of death in the US, formerly number seven and displaced only recently by COVID. The start of National Diabetes Awareness Month provides the opportunity to learn more about how this disease affects seniors and what steps they might take to manage its symptoms.
What Diabetes Is and Means for Senior Health
When we eat, food is broken down into glucose and released into the bloodstream. When blood sugar goes up, the pancreas releases insulin into cells to use as energy. The presence of diabetes means the body cannot make enough insulin or can’t use it as well as it should.
There are two more common types of diabetes. Type 1, generally acquired in childhood and commonly known as juvenile diabetes, is when the body does not produce insulin at all. Type 2 can occur at any age though has a more common onset in middle age and older individuals. About 90 to 95 percent of diabetes cases are Type 2. There is also gestational diabetes, developing in pregnant women. Though it usually goes away after the baby is born, it is known to increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes later in life. Another, though less common form of the disease, is known as latent autoimmune diabetes (LADA).
In general, in all forms, too much sugar from food stays in the bloodstream. If not managed, over time heart disease, stroke, vision loss, loss of limbs, dementia, and kidney disease may result.
Steps That Seniors Diagnosed with Diabetes Can Take to Manage the Disease
While there is no cure for diabetes, there are ways diagnosed seniors can manage symptoms to avoid disease progression to more complicated health conditions. Lifestyle and daily routine are key factors. Here are six proactive steps to help keep it in check:
Monitor Your Blood Glucose Levels
Adhere to regular monitoring of your blood glucose levels (also known as blood sugar levels), as well as blood pressure and cholesterol. While cholesterol is checked less frequently, depending on the extent of your diabetes blood glucose levels and blood pressure may need to be checked several times a day, per your physician. Until a few short years ago, diabetics had to endure painful finger pricks multiple times a day to check blood sugar levels. Today there are less painful and intrusive glucose monitoring systems, often covered by insurance, ranging from apps to subcutaneous implant devices and more.
Follow a Healthy Diet
A proportionate weight can make all the difference in the health and longevity of people with diabetes. While not a panacea, many people who shed extra pounds and maintain it report a reduction in necessary diabetes medications or being taken off them completely. Overall make sure the diet is low in fat, added sugar, and calories, and rich in nutrients. Making fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and low-fat dairy the mainstay of the diet, along with fish and chicken as opposed to a lot of red meat, are also recommended practices for a healthier outcome.
One approach is to eat several small, healthy meals a day, spaced just a few hours apart, instead of three big ones many hours apart. In this way blood sugar levels remain relatively constant. Consult with your physician or physician-sanctioned nutritionist for the best approach to eating.
Make Exercise a Daily Habit
In connection with diabetes, movement cannot be underestimated. The same goes for a myriad of conditions and aging well in general. Being physically active works on all counts, including:
- lowering blood glucose levels
- lowering blood pressure
- improving blood flow
- burning extra calories so you can keep your weight down if needed
- enhancing mood
- preventing falls and improving memory in older adults
- allowing for better sleep
Diabetes or otherwise, be sure to stay well hydrated when exercising, as dehydration can cause issues with body heat regulation—something older people tend to face more regularly anyway. This causes a rise in body temperature and heartrate, resulting in lethargy during and after a workout.
Reduce Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol can sometimes exacerbate diabetes complications, including eye disease and nerve damage. It can also interfere with medication. Per the Mayo Clinic, the liver normally releases stored sugar to counteract falling blood sugar levels. But if your liver is busy metabolizing alcohol, your blood sugar level may not get the boost it needs from your liver. Alcohol can result in low blood sugar shortly after you drink it and for as long as 24 hours afterward.
Clearly this is counterintuitive to good practices when it comes to managing diabetes. While moderate alcohol consumption may be fine, it’s always best to check with your health provider about what’s best for you.
Relieve Stress and Anxiety
Stress and especially prolonged stress can cause a rise in blood pressure and blood sugar levels. No one leads an entirely stress-free life, but prioritizing, setting limits, and learning relaxation techniques including a few minutes a day of meditation, deep and measured breathing, yoga, or tai chi, and getting lots of exercise all help lower stress levels. And if these practices are not already in your life, you don’t have to feel stressed out by incorporating all the above all at once! Choose one to start with and make it part of your daily routine before adding another.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now says smoking is one cause of Type 2 diabetes, with people who smoke 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop the disease than those who don’t. If you have diabetes and are a smoker, you have more trouble with insulin dosing and managing your condition overall than those who don’t smoke. Smoking is also a known culprit for developing more serious health problems from diabetes including heart and kidney disease, poor blood flow in the legs and feet leading to infection and possible amputation, retinopathy, and more. In short, smoking when you have diabetes is like a ticking time bomb.
”Senior Diabetes Poses Health Risks if Not Well-Managed,” written by Beth Herman, Amada blog contributor.