Diabetes is among the biggest threats to American health today.
- As of 2015, more than 9% of the U.S. population (more than 30 million people) were estimated to have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Less than 3% of the American population had diabetes just 20 years earlier in 1985.1
- More than 25% of adults over 65 have diabetes.
- Nearly half of all seniors (48%) are believed to have prediabetes.2
The information below is designed to serve as a senior’s guide to living with diabetes. Also included is a list of helpful resources for further education, treatment and tools that older adults may utilize in their life with diabetes.
How Diabetes Affects Seniors
Type 1 diabetes most often develops at a young age, while type 2 diabetes poses the biggest risk for older adults.
While type 1 diabetes can be rooted in a person’s natural ability to process sugar, type 2 diabetes is often the result of number of factors, such as:
- Prolonged exposure to sugar
A lifetime of consuming sugar can lead to hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, which is a contributing factor to developing type 2 diabetes.
- Slowed metabolism
As we age, our metabolism slows and our bodies turn more food into fat instead of energy. Fat cells are more resistant to natural insulin than muscle cells.
- Reduced physical activity
Older adults typically do not get as much exercise as younger people, and a sedentary lifestyle contributes to added weight. Insulin is also more effective in a body that is physically active.
- High cholesterol
We produce more cholesterol as we age, and high cholesterol puts you at an increased risk of developing diabetes.
There are also two naturally inherited factors that can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes: race and genetics.
- Although researchers are unclear exactly why, people of African-American, American Indian, Asian-American and Latino descent experience higher rates of type 2 diabetes than Caucasians.2
- People who have a family history of diabetes may be at an increased risk, along with women who developed gestational diabetes (a form of diabetes that happens during pregnancy) when they were younger.
Prediabetes is a condition in which a person's blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but they're not high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes.
If you have prediabetes, your body gradually begins to reject insulin as a way of converting sugar to energy. If steps are not taken to reverse prediabetes, it is likely to lead to full diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
How to Recognize Diabetes
Symptoms of type 2 diabetes generally develop slowly and therefore can easily go unnoticed.
Talk to your doctor if you believe you are experiencing any of the following:
- Increased hunger or thirst
- Losing weight without trying
- Lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
- Frequent urination
- Blurred vision
- Skin infections
- Healing slowly from cuts and bruises
- Tingling, numbness or pain in the hands or feet
- Patches of dark skin developing on the creases of the neck, armpit or groin (these patches, known as acanthosis nigricans, sometimes feel soft or velvety)
- Itching or development of yeast infections
Type 2 diabetes can be detected by testing a blood sample, and there are a few different ways doctors may test for it.
- Random plasma glucose test
This blood sugar test may be conducted at any time, regardless of when you last ate a meal.
- Hemoglobin A1C test
This test detects how much sugar is stuck to your red blood cells and may be given at any time of the day.
- Fasting plasma glucose test
This test may be performed only after not eating anything for at least eight hours.
- Postprandial test
This test is typically done two hours after eating.
Complications of Diabetes
When detected early and when appropriate steps are taken, the effects of type 2 diabetes can be minimized and even reversed.
If no action is taken, however, type 2 diabetes can lead to:
- Heart disease
- Nerve damage
- Foot problems that can lead to amputation
- Kidney disease that can result in dialysis or a transplant
- Eye disease that can lead to a loss of vision
- Sexual dysfunction
- Oral health problems
When left untreated, diabetes may also lead to hyperosmolar hyperglycemic nonketotic syndrome (HHNS), which triggers severe increases in blood sugar levels and can lead to hospitalization.
How to Prevent, Manage and Treat Type 2 Diabetes
Some people with type 2 diabetes may be able to properly manage their condition through lifestyle changes around how they eat and how often they exercise.
Some other seniors may need a combination of lifestyle changes as well as medication.
Below are some of the different ways to prevent, manage and treat type 2 diabetes.
Track your glucose levels
Glucose levels that are too high or too low can be dangerous to your health.
Regularly check your blood sugar levels as directed by your doctor, using a blood glucose meter or continuous glucose monitor to keep your diabetes in check.
Make dietary changes
The food you eat can have a large impact on your glucose level.
Be sure to include complex carbohydrates in your diet. These can include foods such as:
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat bread and other whole wheat items
- Vegetables, especially sweet potatoes
You should also try to avoid sugary drinks such as soda.
Your insulin resistance decreases when you exercise, allowing your cells to process glucose more effectively.
Regular exercise also helps to fight against other conditions related to diabetes, such as heart disease and obesity.
Keep up with your medications
If you’ve been prescribed any medication for your diabetes, take it as directed, even on days when you’re feeling good.
Tell your doctor about any side effects of your prescriptions or if you’re having difficulty managing and keeping track of your medication schedule.
Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol
Type 2 diabetes often goes hand-in-hand with high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked every year during an annual checkup. Talk to your doctor to determine your desired cholesterol range and to learn how you can get to that level and maintain it.
Smokers are up to 40% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.3
According to the CDC, people with diabetes who smoke are more likely than non-smokers to have difficulty with insulin dosing and controlling their diabetes.
Get yearly eye exams
There are multiple types of eye diseases that can develop as a result of diabetes.
- Diabetic retinopathy
- Diabetic macular edema
All of these conditions can lead to permanent vision loss and impairment. Undergo a vision exam every year to identify and treat eye problems early.
Check your kidneys annually
Diabetes can greatly affect your kidneys and can even cause them to fail.
Make sure that you get a yearly urine or blood test to test the health of your kidneys.
Get a flu shot every year
Having diabetes puts you at an increased risk for the flu, so be sure to stay updated on these shots before each flu season.
You should also make sure that your pneumonia vaccine is up to date, as you could be at an increased risk for pneumonia if you have diabetes.
Take care of your teeth and gums
People with diabetes are at an increased risk for gum disease, gingivitis and periodontitis. Gum disease can in turn affect your ability to control blood sugar levels.
Visit your dentist twice a year for regular cleanings and checkups, and practice good oral hygiene habits, such as properly brushing your teeth 2-3 times a day.
Keep an eye on your feet
Check over your feet every day for any sign of red patches, sores, blisters, breaks in the skin, infections or calluses.
Talk to your doctor if you notice any issues with your feet, as having diabetes puts you at an increased risk for developing neuropathy (nerve loss), foot ulcers and other serious conditions.
Get regular cancer screenings
People who have type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to develop liver or pancreatic cancer, and they also have an increased risk for colon, bladder and breast cancer.4
Get properly screened for these and other types of cancer as often as recommended by your doctor.
How Medicare Covers Diabetes
If you are are enrolled in Medicare, there are a number of ways you may be able to get health care coverage for your diabetes treatment and management.
Each part of Medicare (Parts A, B, C and D, as well as Medicare Supplement Insurance) can offer coverage that diabetic beneficiaries can use to help them pay for the care they need.
Medicare Part A
Medicare Part A provides coverage for inpatient care at facilities such as hospitals and skilled nursing facilities. People with diabetes may – at some point – require inpatient hospital care, which Part A can help cover.
Two potentially life-threatening complications of diabetes that could result in needing hospital care include:
- Hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state (HHS) is a life-threatening emergency that can occur when blood glucose rises to dangerous levels and can lead to a state of shock or even a coma.
- Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) happens when the body begins to break down fat too quickly, causing blood to become acidic. DKA is often triggered by prolonged uncontrolled blood sugar, missing doses of medications or a severe illness or infection.
Medicare Part B
Medicare Part B provides coverage for outpatient care such as doctor's office visits and certain preventive care such as shots and vaccines.
Part B also covers durable medical equipment (DME), which can include many of the items that someone with diabetes might need.
While certain restrictions apply based on your individual circumstances, Part B coverage can include:
- Blood glucose monitors
- Continuous glucose monitors (must be classified as therapeutic and approved by the Food and Drug Administration to replace a blood glucose monitor for diabetes treatment decisions)
- Blood glucose test strips (up to 300 strips every three months if using insulin, or up to 100 strips every three months if not)
- Lancets (up to 300 strips every three months if using insulin, or up to 100 strips every three months if not)
- Lancet devices
- Glucose control solutions
- Insulin pumps and pump supplies (including the insulin itself)
- Diagnostic screening for diabetes and cardiovascular disease
- Obesity screening and counseling
- Glaucoma tests
- Diabetes prevention program services
- Medical nutrition therapy and diabetes self-management training
- A one-time “Welcome to Medicare” physical exam and an annual wellness exam
You can always talk with your doctor to learn more about how your diabetes treatment may be covered by Medicare.
Medicare Part C
Medicare Part C plans are also called Medicare Advantage plans.
Medicare Advantage plans are sold by private insurance companies, and they provide coverage for everything that Original Medicare (Part A and Part B) covers.
Some Medicare Advantage plans may also provide coverage for routine vision and dental care, prescription drugs, fitness and wellness program memberships and more.
There are special types of Medicare Advantage plans called Medicare Special Needs Plans (SNPs). These plans are designed to help support beneficiaries who have specific chronic conditions.
Depending on where you live, you may have access to a Medicare SNP that offers benefits that specifically support diabetic beneficiaries.
Medicare Part D
Medicare Part D provides coverage exclusively for prescription drugs, which Original Medicare doesn't typically cover.
Part D plans are sold by private insurance companies, so coverage and costs may vary. Some Part D plans can help pay for many of the drugs commonly used to treat type 2 diabetes.
Medicare Supplement Insurance (Medigap)
Medicare Supplement Insurance (also known as Medigap) can help pay for some of the out-of-pocket costs that Medicare Part A and Part B don't cover, such as deductibles, coinsurance, copayments and more.
Additional Diabetes Resources
Here is a list of 25 of the top resources for diabetes education, prevention, management, treatment and financial assistance.
The American Diabetes Association is an authoritative voice on diabetes and provides information and education, advocacy, research, recipes and additional resources for care.
The CDC is among the most trusted resources for statistics and information related to diabetes and other health conditions.
The CDC also funds diabetes awareness campaigns and provides educational tools to help with managing and preventing diabetes through videos, podcasts, social media platforms and more.
The NIDDK conducts research for and provides information about treatments for diabetes.
AADE is a membership organization dedicated to improving care for people with prediabetes and diabetes through education, management and support. AADE members include nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, exercise specialists and more.
Diabetes 24/7 is a personal health record where you can manage your diabetes and exchange information with your health care team. The platform integrates with Microsoft’s HealthVault so you can securely import and share data such as cholesterol levels or medications with doctors, pharmacies and medical labs.
MyHealthAdvisor is an online tool that helps you track what you eat. You can also find recipes for diabetes-friendly dishes and tips for healthy substitute food options.
This free 12-month program is designed for people who have been newly-diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. The program provides ongoing resources, support and access to online communities and local events to help better understand and manage the disease.
This website offers diabetes educational resources such as free pamphlets, seminars, webcasts, online courses and more.
This team of health experts and writers shares a wealth of diabetes knowledge dedicated to the treatment, management and testing of diabetes.
This free online resource for people with type 2 diabetes and their families is approved by medical professionals and has tools and videos for help with managing the disease.
The Diabetes Diet Center provides healthy recipes and diets for people with diabetes, along with a selection of cookbooks and even a frozen meal program.
This non-profit charity organization provides easy-to-understand diabetes care information in multiple languages.
OnTrackDiabates is a website and mobile app that lends support to people with diabates, their families and caregivers. The app and the website contain articles, tips, inspirational stories, podcasts and webinars, along with recipes and workout videos.
AACE, or the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, includes a database of programs designed help qualifying diabetics pay for their medications.
This one-stop shop for diabetes patients includes news, interviews, blogs, tools, tips, strategies and other information related to helping people care for their diabetes.
Diabetes Self-Management publishes a bimonthly magazine, weekly newsletter, books and a blog, all devoted to helping people better manage their diabetes.
Lilly Diabates develops programs and partnerships that provide education and inspiration to people living with diabetes.
dLife aims to break out of the clinical box and tackle diabetes through more creative ways of self-management that involve the emotional, motivational and practical needs of people living with diabetes.
The Freestyle Promise Program provides Abbott diabetes care products to people with diabetes.
Individuals with diabetes can get assistance for BD Ultra-Fine insulin syringes through this program.
The Charles Ray Ⅲ Diabetes Association, Inc. provides discounted prices for pre-owned insulin pumps and supplies along with free glucose meters and testing strips for qualifying diabetics.
Diabetes patients can receive free glucose meters and discounted pricing on other diabetes care supplies.
The Lower Extremity Amputation Prevention Program provides free monofilament for neuropathy testing for people with diabetes.
This program provides certain diabetes medications free of charge.
SafeNetRx provides certain diabetic supplies at deeply discounted rates.
Our resource guides provide helpful information and assistance for a range of topics such as prescription drug costs, alcohol abuse, fall prevention, senior hunger and more.