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If you’re an older adult, living with diabetes doesn’t need to slow you down (and it shouldn’t)

Robert Schreiber, M.D.'s picture
Healthy seniors

As you age, it’s not uncommon for chronic health issues to appear. While any type of chronic illness can be upsetting and feel daunting—it doesn’t need to be. Diseases such as Type II diabetes are manageable at any age. As physician-in-chief at Hebrew SeniorLife, I counsel our residents and patients all the time on some of the best ways to control their diabetes.

While the treatment of any disease should be tailored to a patient’s specific medical needs, the management goals for everyone who has diabetes are the same, regardless of age—enhancing quality of life and reducing complications.

Diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone required to convert sugar, starches and other foods into energy needed for daily life. People with diabetes have too much glucose, a form of sugar, in their blood. As a result, they may suffer from a number of symptoms, such as extreme hunger or thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, or vision difficulties, and are at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and other serious complications.

More than half of the 16 million Americans living with diabetes are over the age of 60. A number of factors can make managing diabetes particularly difficult for older adults. Diabetes can exacerbate medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Complications can develop more quickly in older patients, who may have more—and more severe—complications than younger. Cognitive impairments and decreased physical ability may also make it more difficult to follow a treatment plan.

In discussing successful diabetes self-management programs with my patients, I always make sure they are doing the following:

  1. Monitoring blood glucose levels regularly: This helps patients know how much food to eat, how much exercise to get, and how much medication, including insulin, to take, as well as helping them feel more in control of their disease.
  2. Following a well-balanced meal plan: Different foods affect blood glucose levels, so planning meals is important. A dietitian can help create personalized meal plans designed to help control blood glucose levels.
  3. Exercising regularly: 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week can improve blood glucose levels of older adults.
  4. Taking medications as prescribed: Medications, both oral and injectable, are key to controlling diabetes, and they should be taken exactly as they are prescribed by a physician.
  5. Losing weight: Nearly 90 percent of diabetics are overweight; studies have shown that weight loss is an essential element in controlling blood glucose levels.
  6. Checking feet daily: Diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage) can cause cuts, sores and blisters to go unnoticed. Because they heal more slowly in people with diabetes, the risk of infection is greater.
  7. Visiting your health-care team regularly: Regular visits to a primary care physician and an endocrinologist (a diabetes specialist) can help monitor disease progression and modify disease treatment and management plans. In addition, people with diabetes should see an eye doctor annually and a dentist every six months.

Hebrew SeniorLife offers diabetes and chronic disease self-management programs for older adults in communities across Massachusetts. Call 617-363-8319 to learn more; we’ll be happy to discuss your questions and how we can help you live life to the fullest.

Want to know more about Type II Diabetes? Get the basic facts

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Medical Director of Outpatient Primary Care Practice, Community-Based Programs, Innovation and Development

Robert Schreiber, M.D., provides oversight of the Hebrew SeniorLife Medical Group, which offers primary and specialty care services to older adults. He is also involved in promoting new initiatives, including new models of care at HSL's long-term care facilities, continuing care retirement communities, and senior housing sites. Prior to joining HSL, Dr. Schreiber served as chairman of geriatrics at Lahey Clinic and held leadership positions at several Boston area long-term care facilities. He is board certified...

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