The risk of developing diabetes increases with age, making diabetes a common concern among older adults. Unfortunately, older adults are also at a greater risk for developing many of the other complications associated with the disease. Here is what you need to know about diabetes in older adults.
What is Diabetes?
Your body relies on insulin to carry sugar from your bloodstream to your cells. Once the sugar is inside your cells, it’s converted to energy for immediate or current use. This energy is essential for many of your bodily functions. When your pancreas fails to produce enough insulin, or your body doesn’t use insulin properly, you have diabetes.
Diabetes, like most diseases, can be particularly detrimental to a senior’s health if not managed properly. This is because older adults are at a greater risk of experiencing many of the complications associated with the disease. Here are some of the most common complications that can result from improper diabetes-management.
Hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia is the term we use for low blood sugar. Severe hypoglycemia can be detrimental to seniors’ health. Seniors with severe hypoglycemia may experience unconsciousness or seizures. Here are some of the common signs associated with hypoglycemia.
- Tingling sensations around your mouth
- Pale skin
- Sudden moodiness or other behavioral changes
- Difficulty paying attention
Heart Disease. Heart disease, also referred to as cardiovascular disease, is particularly dangerous because it can result in life-threatening complications including heart attack and stroke.
Diabetic Neuropathy. Seniors who fail to properly manage their diabetes for an extended period of time are at the greatest risk for diabetic neuropathy. Diabetic neuropathy is nerve damage that occurs from high blood sugar levels. Nerve disease or neuropathy can lead to a myriad of complications. Neuropathy may cause tingling, pain, or weakness in your hands and feet. If this is not treated properly, it can lead to amputation. Nerve disease can also cause digestive problems like feeling full early, diarrhea, constipation, or unpredictable blood glucose levels.
Kidney Disease. Diabetes is the most common cause of kidney diseases. Your kidneys play a vital role in keeping you alive. Your kidneys’ responsibilities are referred to as renal function. This includes removing waste and excess water from your body, maintaining your body’s chemical balance, producing hormones that regulate red blood cell production, maintaining your blood pressure, and contributing to bone health. Diabetes harms your kidneys by making them work harder to filter out and absorb the sugar build up in your blood.
Eye disease. Eye disease that occurs as a result of diabetes is known as retinopathy. People with diabetes are also at a high risk for eye problems such as glaucoma, cataracts, and blindness. To minimize the damage that can occur from these eye-related diseases, get your eyes checked once a year.
Diabetes in and of itself doesn’t cause any symptoms. The symptoms often experienced by people with diabetes result from the conditions caused by diabetes (i.e., high blood sugar levels). As a result, many seniors are completely unaware they have the disease; therefore, it is left untreated. Learning about the symptoms associated with the disease can play a huge role in preserving your health and the health of a loved one.
Excessive thirst and urination. Increased thirst is a direct sign your kidneys are working hard to filter and absorb the sugar build up in your blood. When your kidneys can’t keep up, the sugar is excreted in your urine, concurrently drawing fluid from your body’s tissues. This triggers thirst and therefore, more frequent urination.
Gum disease. Untreated diabetes can cause your gums to pull away from your teeth, increasing your risk for gum disease.
Reduced vision. High blood sugar pulls fluids from all of your body’s tissues; the eyes are no exception. This can lead to blurred vision and if left untreated, you may not only damage your retina, but you can potentially go blind.
Slow-healing wounds. Seniors with diabetes take a longer time to heal. This puts them at a greater risk for infections.
Weight loss and constant hunger. Sudden and unexpected weight loss is a common indicator of diabetes. A caloric deficit can occur when sugar is excreted through frequent urination. This can prevent the sugar from the food you consume from reaching your cells, leading to excessive hunger and weight loss.
Tingling of hands and feet. Tingling of hands and feet is common among diabetics who suffer from nerve damage.
Helping Seniors Manage Their Diabetes
Caregivers can help seniors with many of the tedious tasks diabetics are subjected to.
Maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Caregivers can help seniors burdened by diabetes by helping them maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Caregivers can keep a daily record of blood glucose readings, medicine schedule, exercise, meals, and how they are feeling throughout the day. Those with diabetes should also be meeting with their doctor on a regular basis to look for any patterns or concerns.
Encourage good oral hygiene. Since seniors are more likely to have problems in their mouth, it is important for them to have good oral hygiene. Caregivers can play a tremendous role in helping seniors with gum disease. Encourage seniors to brush their teeth with a soft-bristled brush and to floss their teeth after meals.
Assist with nail maintenance. A minor problem such as an ingrown toenail can lead to problems including infections. Caregivers can help seniors by checking their toenails once a week for swelling or other signs of infection.
Promote best practices for bathing. Caregivers can help seniors use best practices when bathing to avoid drying out their skin. A minor injury such as a callous or cut on the foot can lead to serious problems for seniors with diabetes. Seniors with nerve damage might not even feel the cut. After getting out the bath, seniors should do a daily skin check to become aware of any red spots, blisters, and sores. Pay special attention to the feet.
Encourage safe exercising. Seniors should wait an hour or so after eating before exercising. This is because their blood sugar is likely higher during this time. Caregivers can make sure seniors are equipped with glucose tablets or a high-carb snack, water, and a diabetes ID tag when they are exercising away from their home. Caregivers can also ensure seniors check their blood sugar before, during, and after exercising.
Support good stress practices. Many people don’t realize this, but stress can negatively affect your blood sugar. Caregivers can help seniors manage their stress by encouraging them to engage in activities that counteract the effects of stress. These activities include walking, deep breathing exercises, gardening, meditation, listening to music, or working on a hobby.
Properly managing diabetes can help seniors increase their quality of life and avoid many of the common complications associated with the disease.
“What You Need to Know About Diabetes in Older Adults,” Ashley LeVine, Amada Blog Contributor.