Is it normal aging or Type 2 diabetes?

Recognize the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes in older adults.

A doctor reaching his hand out to shake someone's.
An older adult's health care provider can help to determine if they're experiencing normal aging or if Type 2 diabetes is present.

According to the Michigan State University Geriatric Education Center of Michigan, Type 2 diabetes continues to increase in the United States population. For adults over the age of 65, diabetes occurs in approximately 27 percent and pre-diabetes occurs in 50 percent of this population. When caregivers think about the overall goals of care for their loved one, it is important to understand how diabetes affects the quality of life for older adults.

The American Geriatrics Society says that older people with diabetes experience higher rates of mental and physical disability and premature death. They are also more prone to develop other illnesses, like high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. In addition, they also have a greater risk for several conditions associated with the aging process, such as depression, reduced mental function, urinary incontinence, harmful falls, persistent pain and over-medication.

Is it normal aging or is it because of Type 2 diabetes?

In order to figure out how your loved one is affected by Type 2 diabetes, it is important to know how to recognize the difference between normal aging and health problems caused by diabetes. Aging and symptoms of Type 2 diabetes have some similarities: they both can bring on poor eyesight, fatigue, high blood pressure, depression, as well as more frequent urination and higher rates of heart disease and stroke.

Michigan State University Extension says that symptoms can also look similar, but for different reasons. With aging, there may be gait changes because of arthritis and osteoporosis, but gait changes with diabetes may result from neuropathy.

Restlessness and confusion sometimes occurs with normal aging, but with diabetes it results from very high or low blood sugar. Slower reaction time often occurs with normal aging, but for people with diabetes, it can be a result of high or low blood sugar.

These and other symptoms should be signs that our loved one needs to be assessed by your health care provider to determine if they are experiencing normal aging or if Type 2 diabetes is present. Signs of very high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) include increased urination for several days, dehydration, which develops because the person doesn't drink enough liquids and a change in alertness from generalized fatigue to stupor, coma or seizures. These changes may be mistaken for a stroke or mental illness.

How can your health care provider help?

You will need to work with your older adult’s health care provider to determine plans that are based on the status of your loved one: the high functioning individual, older adults with memory loss and elders at the end of their life. Planning also needs to take into account the living situation of the older adult, how much caregiving and support the older adult needs and how much they actually have.

After a thorough assessment, your health care provider will determine a medicine regime. Insulin will be the quickest way to get a very high blood sugar under control. Then, it will be crucial for you and your loved one to attend diabetes education classes in your community.

The major goal is blood sugar management. Besides medications to resolve high blood sugar, the American Diabetes Association says that it’s also important to help your loved one to improve healthy eating habits and physical activity. Supporting your older loved one to manage their Type 2 diabetes is a real challenge. Reach out to the many community resources available to help you and your family meet the challenge of helping your loved one maintain a high quality life.

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