Diabetes in Older People - A Disease You Can Manage

Diabetes is a serious disease. It happens when your blood levels of glucose, a form of sugar, are too high. Diabetes can lead to dangerous health problems. The good news is that high glucose levels can be managed to help control the disease and prevent or delay future problems.

What is Diabetes?

Our bodies change the foods we eat into glucose. Glucose travels through the bloodstream to "fuel" or feed our cells. Insulin is a hormone that helps our bodies use glucose for energy. People with diabetes either do not make insulin, do not use insulin properly, or both. This means they have too much glucose (sugar) in their blood. As a result, they often feel tired, hungry, or thirsty; they may lose weight, urinate often, or have trouble with their eyes. In time, the high levels of this form of sugar in the blood (glucose) can hurt their eyes, kidneys, and nerves. It can also cause heart disease, strokes and even the need to remove all or part of a limb (amputation).

Diabetes tends to run in families, but other factors add to the risk of getting diabetes. For example, being overweight and underactive can sometimes trigger diabetes in people who are at risk. There is a lot of research underway looking at what causes diabetes and how best to manage it. But there is a lot we do know. For example, we know that careful control of blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol can help prevent or delay diabetes and its complications. For more, please read the Diabetes article.

Types of Diabetes

There are two types of diabetes. In one kind, people must take insulin every day. This is called type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile-onset diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is often first seen in children, teenagers, or adults under age 30.

The second kind of diabetes happens when the body produces insulin but doesn't use it in the right way. This is called type 2 diabetes, formerly called adult-onset diabetes. It is most common in people over age 40. Type 2 diabetes is linked to obesity, lack of activity, family history of diabetes, and family background. African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, American Indians, and some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are at very high risk for type 2 diabetes.

There is also a condition called pre-diabetes in which blood glucose (a form of sugar) levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be called diabetes. This condition raises the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. People with pre-diabetes can delay or prevent type 2 diabetes by losing weight and being more active.

Related Health Concerns

Blood glucose levels that are either very high or very low can lead to serious medical problems, even emergencies. In addition to the health problems noted above, people with diabetes could go into a coma (become unconscious) if their blood glucose levels get very high. Low blood glucose (called hypoglycemia) can also cause problems if it's untreated. Usually hypoglycemia is mild and can easily be treated by eating or drinking something with carbohydrates such as bread, fruit, potatoes, or milk. But, left untreated, hypoglycemia can lead to loss of consciousness. Although hypoglycemia can happen suddenly, it can usually be treated quickly, bringing your blood glucose level back to normal.

Researchers recently have found that people with diabetes also have an increased risk for Alzheimer's disease. Studies are underway to understand this connection and to see whether strict control of glucose can delay or prevent this problem.


Often, people with type 2 diabetes have few or no symptoms. Many people with type 2 diabetes don't even know they have it. For some people, feeling run, down is their only symptom. Other people may feel thirsty, urinate often, lose weight, have blurred vision, get skin infections, or heal slowly from cuts and bruises. It is very important to tell the doctor right away about any of these problems.