Get the latest strategies on preventing diabetes and managing symptoms to take control of your health, avoid emergency care, and enjoy an active, independent lifestyle.
Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects more than 25 percent of people who are 65 years and older. Diabetes is characterized by having too much glucose, or sugar, in the blood. Some sugar in the blood is okay, but too much sugar is dangerous.
Our bodies get glucose – or sugar – primarily from the foods we eat. If our body works the way it should, glucose moves from our bloodstream into our cells where it is converted into energy. Insulin is a hormone that helps facilitate this process. Unfortunately, our body does not always work the way we want it to. Diabetes sets in when we don’t make enough insulin or the insulin does not do what it should, and too much sugar stays in the blood.
Diabetes can cause serious damage to the body if not managed properly, contributing to heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blindness, kidney disease, and amputation. In fact, nearly 30 million people who have diabetes as a primary condition need emergency care, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s a disease that requires a tremendous amount of monitoring and self-care.
What type are you?
With type 1 diabetes, the body does not make insulin. A person who has type 1 diabetes must take insulin daily to live. Type 1 diabetes accounts for about 5 to 10 percent of diagnosed diabetes in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. It develops most often in children and young adults but can appear at any age. Symptoms may include increased thirst and urination, constant hunger, weight loss, blurred vision, and extreme fatigue. If not diagnosed and treated with insulin, a person with type 1 diabetes can lapse into a life-threatening diabetic coma. We have no control over this type of diabetes.
However, with type 2 diabetes, which is the more common type, our body does not make or use insulin well. Often by making healthier lifestyle choices, such as losing weight or exercising or eating healthier foods, we can keep the disease from worsening and damaging our bodies.
Type 2 diabetes is most often associated with older age, obesity, family history of diabetes, previous history of gestational diabetes, physical inactivity, and certain ethnicities. About 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, reports the National Institutes of Health.
When type 2 diabetes is diagnosed, the pancreas is usually producing enough insulin, but for unknown reasons the body cannot use the insulin effectively, a condition called insulin resistance. After several years, insulin production decreases. The result is the same as for type 1 diabetes—glucose builds up in the blood and the body cannot make efficient use of it.
The symptoms of type 2 diabetes are similar to those of type 1 diabetes, but they develop gradually. Symptoms may include fatigue, frequent urination, increased thirst and hunger, weight loss, blurred vision, and slow healing of wounds or sores. Some people have no symptoms. A simple blood test can confirm a diagnosis.
People with prediabetes have blood glucose levels that are higher than normal but not high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes. This condition raises the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Prediabetes is becoming more common in the United States. People with prediabetes are likely to develop type 2 diabetes within 10 years unless they take steps to prevent or delay diabetes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Prevention and Management Strategies
The good news is that you can do a lot to prevent or delay diabetes. Studies show that people can lower their risk of developing diabetes by losing 5 to 7 percent of their body weight through diet and exercise. In fact, a major study of more than 3,000 people with prediabetes found that diet and exercise resulting in a 5 to 7 percent weight loss (that’s about 10 to 14 pounds in a person who weighs 200 pounds) lowered the incidence of type 2 diabetes by nearly 60 percent. Study participants lost weight by cutting fat and calories in their diet and by exercising at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Walking was the exercise of choice.
Exercise, a healthy diet and weight loss play a tremendous role in helping you prevent or manage your diabetes. The key is to make gradual lifestyle changes.
Let’s start with exercise. First off, be sure to consult your health care provider before starting an exercise program. If you are not physically active at all, begin slowly. Choose an activity you enjoy and can do most days of the week. For example, walk within your house, or down the street, for five minutes before each of your meals. Slowly add more time until you reach at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity five days a week. Build physical activity into your day. Join a senior center and take a water aerobics class or a dance class. Learn tai chi or yoga. There are even chair exercises you can do if you have trouble standing or have mobility issues.
Exercise is good for poor circulation. It stimulates blood flow in the legs and feet. Walk in sturdy, good-fitting, comfortable shoes, but don’t walk when you have open sores.
In addition to exercise, a healthy diet packs a powerful punch in preventing or controlling diabetes. Aim to make healthy food choices every day. Stick to snacks such as colorful fruits and vegetables, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products. Choose whole-grain cereals and breads as well as lean meats and poultry. Incorporate more fish, beans, peas, nuts and seeds into your diet and experiment with seasonings such as cinnamon. There are tons of diabetes-specific recipes online or cookbooks at the local library.
The impact of weight loss can’t be overlooked either. A large study, called the Diabetes Prevention Program, showed that if people at risk for type 2 diabetes lost a small amount of weight and became more active for three years they could prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. People also had other benefits of weight loss like lowered blood pressure. To start off, keep a food and exercise journal and track everything you eat and drink and all of your physical activity in one week. Clear the refrigerator and pantry of unhealthy foods. If all you have are plenty of fruits and vegetables, you are more likely to eat them. Use soups, salads, raw vegetables, and fruit to fill up. Eating fewer calories doesn’t mean facing an empty plate. It means you make smarter food choices. You need to feel full to have long-term success.
In addition to these strategies, be sure to get all of your regular screenings, including eye exams, as recommended by your health care provider. You should stay on top of your overall health measures, including blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, BMI, and other important numbers. If you are prescribed medicine for diabetes or any other chronic condition, make sure you take your medicine exactly as prescribed by your physician.
Also, if you smoke, try to quit. Smoking increases your risk of getting diabetes and makes it more difficult to manage the disease. A lot of people with diabetes who need amputations are smokers, according to The Cleveland Clinic. Ask your health care provider for suggestions on how to quit smoking. If one program hasn’t worked, try another. There are many tools available to help you quit smoking.
When left unmanaged, diabetes can have devastating consequences. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease and stroke are the most common causes of death of diabetic patients. Arteries become narrowed and get damaged, resulting in reduced blood flow to the heart. Other arteries that supply blood to the legs, arms, brain, kidneys, and other organs get damaged as well. This is called peripheral artery disease and results in poor circulation, pain in the legs, and reduced mobility.
Nerve damage is another complication of diabetes. With nerve damage, even the most ordinary problems can lead to serious complications. For example, you may not feel a stone in your shoe due to loss of feeling in your foot, which can create a sore that doesn’t heal because of poor blood flow. The sore eventually can become a hard-to-heal wound or ulcer that gets infected and requires major medical care, possibly amputation. It’s a common story among diabetic patients.
Diabetes can cause changes in the skin of your foot. At times your foot may become very dry. The skin may peel and crack. The problem is that the nerves that control the oil and moisture in your foot no longer work. After bathing, dry your feet and seal in the remaining moisture with a thin coat of plain petroleum jelly or other unscented cream. Do not put oils or creams between your toes. The extra moisture can lead to infection. Also, don’t soak your feet — that can dry your skin.
See your health care provider right away about foot problems. Ask about prescription shoes that are covered by Medicare. Always follow your health care provider’s advice when caring for ulcers or other foot problems.
Another complication of diabetes is eye disease. Diabetes can lead to damage of the blood vessels in the retina, causing severe vision loss or even blindness. Cataracts develop at an earlier age and diabetics are twice as likely as other adults to get glaucoma.
Take control of your health. Create an action plan. Write it down on paper. Whether you make it a point to eat more vegetables or take more walks or lose five pounds, or to quit smoking, you are choosing to make your health a priority. When you make positive choices for your health, you give yourself the tools to manage your disease, prevent complications, and have a better quality of life.