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Effects of Diabetes on the Elderly

Diabetes affects nearly 20% of Americans over the age of 65, according to Another quarter of the senior citizen population fits the criteria for impaired glucose intolerance (insulin resistance) due to the general effects of aging, weight gain and more sedentary lifestyles. And almost half of the elderly with diabetes fail to properly control their blood glucose levels.

In addition to the rise in those diagnosed with diabetes, the cost of treating the disease is increasing due to the aging population, obesity and more aggressive treatment. In fact, the estimated cost of diabetes in 2007 was about $174 billion, and the average out-of-pocket annual expense for a person with diabetes was nearly $12,000.

With the incidence of diabetes on the rise, and treatment costs increasing at astronomical rates, diabetes care is becoming an increasingly important concern for the U.S. healthcare system. Unfortunately, the symptoms and effects of diabetes on the elderly can be more difficult to identify for a variety of reasons – and treatment can be more complicated, too.

Understanding the symptoms of hyperglycemia and hyperglycemia will help you better understand the effect of diabetes on the elderly, as well as help you identify and treat the two most common diabetes-related emergencies found in the senior population.

Effects of Hypoglycemia and Hyperglycemia on the Elderly

The symptoms of diabetes in the elderly can be masked, making the disease more difficult to diagnose. Warning signs like increased thirst, frequent urination and vision problems may be overlooked because of the common affects of aging on the body. For example, a normal decrease in thirst due to age can offset the typical increased thirst experienced by people with diabetes. Changes such as mental confusion, incontinence and other health complications related to diabetes are more often the presenting symptoms.

Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) are the two most common, yet threatening, diabetes-related emergencies experienced by the elderly. Unfortunately, they are commonly overlooked because cognitive impairment, such as dementia or other mental illness can make it difficult for the elderly to recognize the symptoms of diabetes-related emergencies.

Symptoms of Hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia typically occurs when a senior parent or other elderly person with diabetes misses a meal or snack. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include:

  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Trembling or feelings of nervousness
  • Lack of motor coordination and fatigue
  • Irritability or confusion
  • Blurred vision, headache or dizziness
  • Nausea or stomach pain
  • Fainting or unconsciousness

  • These are just some of the most common effects of hypoglycemia in the elderly. If your parent or another elderly person exhibits symptoms of hypoglycemia, immediately administer a form of sugar that can be easily absorbed, such as glucose tablets, juice or soda pop.

    Symptoms of Hyperglycemia

    Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) is caused by too much food, reduced activity, missed insulin or even another illness and may develop over hours or days. The most common hyperglycemia symptoms are:

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Sweet odor to the breath
  • Fatigue
  • Agitation and confusion
  • High levels of ketones in the urine
  • Weight loss

  • If anyone you know, especially an elderly person, is suffering from the effects of hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia, be sure to check with their physician or call for emergency care.

    Depression and Other Symptoms

    The effect of diabetes on the elderly is often stronger – and the treatment is often more difficult –for a variety of reasons. Depression, dementia, mental illness or other cognitive impairments can cause an elderly person to be forgetful. They may miss mealtimes, or be unable to remember to check blood sugar levels or take their medication as prescribed. In addition, a new study suggests that elderly people with symptoms of depression are 60% more likely to develop diabetes. While the link is not completely understood, it means that if your parent or another person suffers from depression, there is a good chance they have, or will develop diabetes.

    Financial limitations are another challenge for older diabetics. Many senior citizens are on limited incomes, and the high price of medications and necessary healthcare may contribute to non-adherence to medications and the lack of proper medical supervision. There are many stories of the elderly splitting or skipping pills in order to make their supply last longer. Even transportation to and from medical appointments can become an issue. Unfortunately, they are putting their health at risk.

    Another reason the effects of diabetes on the elderly are felt more strongly is because seniors are more likely to suffer from inadequate nutrition and lack of proper exercise. The most important things you can do to help your parents, or another elderly person, minimize the effects of diabetes include:

  • Helping them maintain proper nutrition by supplementing a healthy, balanced diet with vitamins for diabetes. If your parent or elderly friend has problems preparing meals, services like Meals on Wheels can help by providing delivered meals on a regular basis.

  • Ensuring medication is taken as prescribed. Providing a medication manager to an elderly person with diabetes can help them remember to take their insulin and other medications at the appropriate times.

  • Reminding them to use their blood glucose meters to check if their blood sugar level is in the normal range. Keeping a stocked supply of diabetes testing strips on hand can be handy in the case of emergencies.

  • Reading and understanding their diabetes insurance information, so you can save them as much money and get them as much help as possible.

  • Monitor daily health for symptoms of diabetes-related complications – especially hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. Make sure they get a fair amount of exercise and treat any complications immediately. Be sure to follow any advice given by their physician.

  • Following these tips should make diabetes care for the elderly more effective, and reduce the chances of diabetes-related complications, such as hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia.

    References: –
    New Scientist –
    Diabetes Journals –
    Senior Journal –

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