The Risks of Diabetes in the Elderly

Diabetes poses risks to health, regardless of the age of the diabetic. We’ve all heard horror stories about complications. We also know that low blood sugar can be scary, and can even be fatal if not recognized. So, how does diabetes affect a senior citizen?

The Risks of Diabetes in the Elderly

Causes of Diabetes in Senior Citizens

Diabetes has no known cause. There are risk factors that increase one’s chances of developing diabetes, but there is no single cause that can be identified.

Modifiable risk factors:

  • Obesity
  • Activity level
  • Hypertension
  • Smoking

Non-modifiable risk factors:

  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Family history

Obviously, the senior citizen can’t help if they’ve got a family history of diabetes, or if their ethnicity (such as Native American) increases their risk. However, if they are obese and inactive, losing weight and getting exercise can decrease their risk for developing diabetes.


Diabetes has the tendency to be undetected for a long period of time. Often, it’s not diagnosed until the senior citizen is hospitalized for another reason. Healthcare costs are increasing and a larger majority of senior citizens are not seeing their doctor regularly, which also increases the chances that a senior citizen may have undiagnosed diabetes.

When this happens, their glycohemoglobin can be elevated to dangerous levels. Glycohemoglobin (or A1C) is a simple blood test that is used to diagnose diabetes. The higher the level, the more out of control the blood glucose. When the level is dangerously high, insulin is often instituted because it is proven to decrease glucose levels quickly and effectively.

This medication has a bad reputation. It must be injected. It can cause low blood sugar. Administration takes practice and can be perceived as painful. People have the perception that insulin leads to an increase of complications. It does need to be injected, but if the dosing is correct it will not cause hypoglycemia. It does require practice to administer correctly, but it is no more painful than checking one’s blood sugar. It does not increase complications, but actually decreases complications.


Hypoglycemia is a risk of diabetes. “Hypoglycemia unawareness” is a reality for the elderly, and can cause significant problems to the diabetic if it is not treated. It is important for the diabetic and their loved ones to know the symptoms of hypoglycemia and to treat it appropriately.

Diabetes affects the microvasculature of the body if blood glucose is out of control. When this happens, the nerves are affected, causing conditions such as neuropathy (tingling of the extremities) and gastroparesis (paralyzation of the stomach) can occur. Blood flow may not be adequate, causing poor wound healing. The risk of poor wound healing is increased infection, which can lead to amputations of toes, fingers and limbs.