Seniors and Diabetes: Latest Info and Actions for Family Caregivers

Many of our senior loved ones have diabetes — 25.9%, or 11.8 million seniors over 65 are affected, according to the American Diabetes Association. That includes both cases that have been diagnosed and those that are undiagnosed.

A diabetes diagnosis means our blood glucose (sugar) level is too high. The higher the level, the greater the risk for complications.

It is also estimated that 50% of seniors have pre-diabetes which is a higher than normal level of blood sugar not yet diabetic. This is the point where prevention strategies can be effective if you are aware of the diagnosis.

Diabetes Care Challenging

Caring for person with diabetes can be complicated and challenging for family caregivers.

There are many complications from diabetes that family caregivers are struggling to prevent including heart disease, blindness, kidney disease, gum disease, nerve damage, amputations and heart attack or stroke. As a result we work very hard to manage the symptoms in our senior loved ones, follow a diabetic meal plan and help them get plenty of exercise.

Unfortunately, diabetes continues to be the 7th leading cause of death in the US as of 2010, with the diagnosis of diabetes taking an estimated 4-11 years off the life expectancy for our senior loved ones.

Because dealing with diabetes can become more difficult as your senior loved one ages, it is important to understand the risks of uncontrolled diabetes and the ways you can help manage it to help keep them healthy.

Latest Challenges for Seniors with Diabetes

There continues to be more information about diabetes coming out of the research lab every day. The more we learn, the better able we are to treat it and even prevent it from occurring.

Here are some of the more recent issues associated with diabetes in our senior loved ones. Clinical trials are underway in which you and your senior can participate.

Hearing Loss

A recent study found that hearing loss affects people with diabetes at a twofold rate compared to those without diabetes. Also, hearing loss occurs in those with pre-diabetes (which is a total of 86 million adults) at a 30% greater rate than those whose blood sugar is normal.

At this time, we really don’t know how diabetes is related to hearing loss but researchers speculate that high blood glucose levels associated with diabetes cause damage to the small blood vessels in the inner ear, similar to the way in which diabetes can damage the eyes, nerves and the kidneys.

When blood sugar is consistently elevated, damage is occurring to the walls of blood vessels.


Research has shown a link between dementia and diabetes. When the blood sugar is low (hypoglycemia), seniors are at a greater risk for development of cognitive impairment. The risk of developing dementia has been estimated to be twice as great in those with hypoglycemia.

In addition, those already diagnosed with diabetes and dementia are at a greater risk to have low blood sugar.

It appears that a vicious cycle of low blood sugar damaging the brain and dementia impairing the ability to manage the symptoms of diabetes occurs thereby resulting in more frequent low blood sugar episodes. It is hard to break this cycle.

Some researchers feel that low blood sugar levels can damage nerves triggering impairments in the thinking process. This entire scenario can be made worse by aging when the body has more difficulty processing the medications given to manage blood sugar.


A recent concern in seniors with diabetes is the rate of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, events and the fear that many seniors may be ‘overtreated’ for diabetes.

Doctors are trying to manage blood sugar more tightly, achieving a hemoglobin A1C level of less than 7.0%, which could lead to problems including abnormal heart rhythms, dizziness or even loss of consciousness. Some recent research has pointed to the fact that tight control using insulin or sulfonylureas did not benefit older adults but were more likely to lead to low blood sugar. They may receive better results using newer medicines. All agree, a program individualized to each senior is the best.

Because seniors are often in a more frail health condition and their bodies don’t always process the medications effectively, combined with an inadequate diet, they are at greater risk to having low blood sugar instead of high blood sugar (hyperglycemia).

Another study suggests that preventing hypoglycemia can have greater benefits for older adults including enhanced quality of life, improved confidence and thereby better compliance to their treatment plan. This study also suggests that age itself can increase the risk of hypoglycemia since older adults often have impaired kidney function and multiple medications for other diseases.


Aging factors not only can contribute to hypoglycemia, but also make it more difficult to diagnose diabetes to begin with, according to the American Diabetes Association. Older adults don’t always show the usual signs of diabetes such as glusouria (glucose in the urine) or polydipsia (excessive thirst) since thirst is already diminished resulting in dehydration.

Many older adults show diabetes onset with symptoms of confusion or incontinence.

What Can You and Your Senior Do?

Yes, caring for a senior loved one with diabetes can be challenging but there are steps we can take to help them manage their condition.

  1. Get your senior (and yourself) tested annually and know if either of you have pre-diabetes or diabetes. Medicare covers the cost of annual testing for seniors at risk.
  2. Learn as much as you can about the disease so that you can manage the symptoms and spot impending trouble. Be aware of the signs of both hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia and what to do to treat each condition as swift action is needed.
  3. Take steps to help them achieve a healthy weight including losing weight. Obesity is a major risk for diabetes development and weight loss can improve blood sugar control.
  4. Increase physical activity, get them moving every day in some form of exercise that your senior loved one enjoys.
  5. Manage your senior’s diet by serving well balanced meals that are low in fat and calories limiting sweets. Get an individualized meal plan from a registered dietitian in the diabetes program recommended by your doctor and follow the advice.
  6. If your senior is diagnosed with diabetes, attend diabetes education classes, which are covered under Medicare, together. Learn about blood glucose monitoring and how to correctly administer medications watching for signs of adverse reactions.
  7. Follow your senior’s healthcare team’s treatment plan by testing your senior’s blood sugar as recommended and taking medications as prescribed.
  8. Practice a heart healthy lifestyle by eating less fat, monitoring your senior’s blood pressure and limiting their salt intake. Keep your senior’s cholesterol levels in check too.
  9. Quit smoking, because smoking can increase the chances of developing complications from diabetes.
  10. If you or your senior loved one would like to learn from and share with others, attend a support group in your area. You can locate one by calling 1-800-Diabetes.

Diabetes can be controlled – often even prevented – with healthy lifestyle choices. Know the facts and get checked to be sure you and your senior are aware of your risks.

Staying in control of diabetes will lead to more life in your senior’s years!