Take control: How older people can win the fight against diabetes

November is National Diabetes Month and it’s a time when communities across the nation bring attention to one of America’s most common chronic health conditions. In Alabama, approximately 610,458 people in Alabama, or about 15.2 percent of the adult population, have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Additionally, more than 1 million Alabamians have glucose (blood sugar) levels high enough to be considered prediabetic.

Diabetes is one of the most serious issues impacting our nation’s older adult population. According to the association, about one in four people over the age of 60 in America have diabetes. Having diabetes at an older age makes you more susceptible to complications such as vision problems and hearing loss. That’s why it’s important for older people to work to prevent diabetes or keep their diabetes under control. 

What is diabetes?

Our bodies turn the food we eat into glucose. Insulin helps glucose get into our cells, where it can be used to make energy. If you have diabetes, your body may not make enough insulin, may not use insulin in the right way or both. That can cause too much glucose in the blood. Over time, this may cause serious health problems, such as heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease.

There are two main kinds of diabetes- Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 diabetes means the body makes too little or no insulin. Although adults can develop this type of diabetes, it occurs most often in children and young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Type 1 diabetes is thought to be caused by an autoimmune reaction (the body attacks itself by mistake) that stops your body from making insulin. About 5 percent of the people who have diabetes have Type 1. People with Type 1 diabetes need to take insulin every day to stay alive.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common kind of diabetes with about 90 percent of diabetics having it. In Type 2 diabetes, the body makes insulin but does not use it correctly. As a result, the body cannot keep blood sugar at normal levels on its own. It occurs often in middle-aged and older adults. The chance of getting Type 2 diabetes is higher if a person is 45 or older, overweight, inactive or has a family history of diabetes. Also, women who had gestational diabetes (diabetes that occurs during pregnancy) are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes later in life.

Watch your plate

The exact link between being overweight and diabetes is still not fully understood by medical researchers. However, there is some evidence that fat cells are more resistant to insulin than muscle cells. Following a healthy diet can not only help you control weight, it can also manage blood sugar. Whether you have diabetes or not, it’s important to balance the amount of food being eaten during meals with the nutritional value of the food. Try using the Plate Method recommended by the American Diabetes Association. First, don’t pile portions on a plate more than about the thickness of a deck of cards or the palm of a hand. Second, fill half the plate with non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes or green beans. Third, fill a fourth of the plate with grains and starchy vegetables like bread, peas, potatoes or squash. Finally, fill the remainder of the plate with protein such as fish, poultry (without the skin) or lean cuts of beef and pork.

Get moving

Physical activity helps fight chronic diseases like diabetes as well as the effects of aging. Regular physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week can help you stay strong and capable of doing daily activities. Daily exercise can also help improve glucose levels in older people with diabetes. Even the addition of a small amount of exercise can promote increased heart health, muscle strength and improved mobility. However, before beginning any exercise program, it is recommended that older adults consult a qualified physician.

Managing diabetes

Diabetes can cause vision loss, kidney failure, nerve damage as well as increased infections and slowed healing, sometimes resulting in the need for amputation. Careful diabetes management helps keep diabetics healthy and prevents complications. If you already have Type 2 diabetes, your doctor may prescribe medication in addition to diet and exercise. There are several medications that help to lower blood sugar in different ways. Eventually, many people with Type 2 diabetes will need insulin due to the body decreasing the amount of insulin it produces over time. Insulin cannot be taken in pill form. It must be taken in an injection or given through an insulin pump. Along with diabetes medication and possibly insulin, a Type 2 diabetic may be taking other medications to manage other conditions and they may need help to stay organized. A pill organizer can be helpful, especially if they have trouble opening bottles or other medication packaging.

Regular monitoring of blood sugar is an important part of managing diabetes on a daily basis. If glucose levels drop too low, it can impact the ability to think and function normally. If they get too high and stay high, it can cause damage to the body and lead to complications over time. A blood glucose meter and testing strips are used to check blood sugar levels. If you have trouble seeing or have arthritis in your hands, you may need special diabetic testing supplies that are easier to manage. Some glucose meters are larger and more ergonomic for older adults with trouble gripping. For people who have vision issues, there are meters that “speak” so they don’t have to struggle to read the numbers on the meter. Some diabetic testing strips are also larger so they can be read more easily.

As people grow older, the likelihood of developing diabetes increases. However, a healthy diet and regular exercise can help prevent or manage diabetes. Symptoms of diabetes include fatigue, extreme thirst or hunger, slow healing from cuts and bruises, frequent urination and blurred vision. Consult your physician about being tested for diabetes if you experience one or more of these symptoms.