Elderly at-risk for developing type 2 diabetes

The American Diabetes Association reports that approximately 50 percent of people over the age of 65 have pre-diabetes or diabetes. As a person ages, their cells are less likely to be adequately responsive to insulin, resulting in glucose that stays in the blood stream and is not able to get into cells to be used for energy. When insulin resistance is particularly severe, type 2 diabetes may develop.

Increased risk of type 2 diabetes in seniors

Although the reasons for the elevated risk of type 2 diabetes in the elderly are not absolutely clear, researchers think the reason lies in the fact that our cells become less responsive to insulin and the way the body uses glucose changes.

Fat in muscle cells. As a person ages, the body's ability to regulate how cells use glucose changes, and cells do not internalize glucose normally. Scientists like Dr. Nicolas Musi, MD at the University of Texas Health Science Center note that recent studies have suggested that fat tends to accumulate within muscles as we age and inhibits the use of glucose by muscle cells. Dr. Musi notes that an enzyme important for burning fat is less active as a person ages, ultimately resulting in cells that cannot use glucose normally.

Increasing severity of underlying diseases. Some people have non-severe glucose metabolism diseases that cause no symptoms when the person is young, but become much more apparent as a person ages.

Vitamin deficiency or excess. Too much dietary iron is associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes particularly in the elderly. In contrast, elderly persons who get too little vitamins C and E are more likely to develop diabetes. This indicates that alterations in diet may help prevent or improve diabetes in certain elderly persons.

Co-existing conditions. Elderly persons are often taking multiple different prescribed medications that may reduce efficient glucose metabolism and contribute to type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes symptoms confused with other causes

Co-existing conditions may mask the symptoms of type 2 diabetes in the elderly. For example, abnormal blood sugar may present similarly to multiple symptoms experienced by the elderly and thought to be due to other conditions. These symptoms are described by Dr. Jeffrey Wallace, MD, MPH in an article published in the journal Clinical Diabetes:

  • Sleep abnormalities
  • Dementia
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Delirium

Because these symptoms have multiple potential causes, regular and thorough check-ups at the doctor are necessary to correctly diagnose the cause behind these symptoms.

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About Leah DiPlacido

Leah DiPlacido, Ph.D. is a biomedical writer/editor. She received her doctorate degree in Immunology at Yale University, and conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Connecticut. She has authored research articles in publications such as "Arthritis and Rheumatism" and "Journal of Immunology." Leah now writes about topics in health for doctors, scientists, and the general public.

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