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Diabetes Mellitus Disease Information for the Elderly

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Diabetes Mellitus Disease Information for the ElderlyDiabetes mellitus, commonly referred to as sugar diabetes, is one of the more prevalent chronic diseases particularly in Western nations. It is not specifically a disease of the elderly – in fact diabetes mellitus is more likely to develop within the mid forties to late fifties. However, some of the more severe complications in diabetes mellitus occurs closer to the senior years. It significantly complicates both the lifestyle and management of other diseases in the elderly. More importantly though, diabetes mellitus is potentially fatal and there is often ignorance about the seriousness of this disease.

Types of Diabetes Mellitus

There is broadly three types of diabetes mellitus :

  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus which tends to start in early life, hence the outdated term juvenile diabetes, although it may start within the 30s and 40s.
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus which is more common and can start from the 20s onwards. It may be termed early onset if it begins before 60 years of age or late onset if its starts after the age of 60.
  • Gestational diabetes also commonly referred to as pregnancy diabetes which starts when a woman is pregnant and often resolves shortly after childbirth although it can continue for life thereafter.

Causes of Diabetes Mellitus

Diabetes mellitus is simply a problem with controlling the blood glucose levels thereby leading to high glucose levels (hyperglycemia). Normally the pancreas secretes a hormone known as insulin to lower blood glucose levels should it rise. Another hormone known as glucagon can raise blood glucose levels when it falls too low. In this way the body can maintain the blood glucose levels within a normal range at any time of the day or night. Glucose is essential for the cells to produce energy and is needed for every process in the body to run efficiently. Most glucose is sourced by breaking down carbohydrates that are eaten but even protein and fat can be converted into glucose. High levels of glucose however can damage cells and lead to a host of complications.

The hormone insulin forces cells to take in more glucose and for excess glucose to be stored away in the liver as glycogen or throughout the body as fat. In this way insulin removes glucose from the bloodstream when the glucose levels are too high. It also signals the liver to not produce any additional glucose either from the food it is processing or its glucose stores. In diabetes mellitus this control of blood glucose levels by insulin is impaired. In type 1 diabetes mellitus the pancreas cells that produce glucose is damaged leading to a lack of insulin (insulin deficiency). With type 2 diabetes mellitus the cells of the body stop responding to the insulin and this is known as insulin resistance. A similar process to type 2 diabetes mellitus occurs in gestational diabetes possibly as a result of the high levels of female hormones in circulation during pregnancy.

Although genetic factors play a significant role in diabetes mellitus, the influence of other lifestyle factors particularly with type 2 diabetes mellitus are important considerations. This includes :

  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Age as the chances of developing diabetes increases as a person gets older
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Family history of diabetes
  • High blood cholesterol or triglyceride levels

Apart from age and family history, most of the other factors are modifiable meaning that it can be changed or avoided.

Signs and Symptoms

Diabetes mellitus is initially asymptomatic meaning that there may be no signs and symptoms especially in the stage just before diabetes fully develops known as pre-diabetes. In the elderly, the signs and symptoms can often be mistaken for side effects of chronic medication or other diseases. Therefore it is important to undergo regular testing to monitor the blood glucose levels rather than depending on the onset of the various symptoms.

  • Increased thirst – feeling thirsty often despite not being more active or not perspiring excessively in hot weather.
  • Frequent urination – urinating many more times in a day that is your normal pattern and especially awaking at night to urinate.
  • Fatigue – feeling uncharacteristically tired even without extra physical activity which is sometimes just passed off as low energy levels.
  • Increased hunger – eating more frequently, feeling hungry shortly after eating and sometimes ravenous hunger.
  • Unexplained weight loss – losing weight for no known reason despite eating more food and being as active as is normally the case.

Over time and as the diabetes worsens, a person may start noticing additional symptoms such a repeated infections, wounds that do not heal properly or as quickly, blurred vision, unexplained headaches and fruity odor to the breath. Once the complications of diabetes mellitus sets in, more severe symptoms will become apparent.


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