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Understanding diabetes and its symptoms

Diabetes is a chronic condition affecting an estimated 1.3 million Australians, with the risk for developing diabetes increasing considerably as you age.

Last updated: December 30th 2022
Diabetes occurs when the body can no longer produce enough insulin to convert sugar into energy. [Source: iStock]

Diabetes occurs when the body can no longer produce enough insulin to convert sugar into energy. [Source: iStock]

Key points:

  • Diabetes occurs when the body cannot produce enough insulin to convert sugar into energy
  • There are two main forms – type 1 and type 2 diabetes – with type 2 diabetes being the most common type affecting older people
  • It requires ongoing management, including self-monitoring of blood glucose levels, medication and insulin injections

People aged over 65 are the most affected by diabetes with almost 19 percent of people aged over 75, and 15.5 percent of 65-74-year-olds, living with diabetes.

Altogether, roughly 2.4 million Australians have either been diagnosed with diabetes or are caring for an older loved one with the disease.

Diabetes occurs when the body can no longer produce enough insulin to convert sugar into energy.

As a result, blood glucose levels increase, which can lead to other serious health conditions like kidney disease or cardiovascular disease.

Continue reading to learn more about diabetes, including the symptoms and steps involved with managing your diabetes.

What is type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease with no identifiable cause or trigger. It’s believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors but is not influenced by modifiable lifestyle factors like weight or inactivity. There is no cure.

Roughly ten to 15 percent of people diagnosed with diabetes have type 1. It was previously also thought to primarily develop in children and adults under the age of 30, however, modern research suggests almost half of people with type 1 diabetes develop it after 30.

Changes to a person’s autoimmune system can occur at any age, and you can be diagnosed into your 70s or 80s.

Type 1 diabetes will require lifelong management through regular blood sugar level self-testing and frequent insulin injections every day. Older people are at a higher risk for severe side effects like ketoacidosis and hyperglycemia (high blood glucose), and accurate management of insulin levels is essential.

Ketoacidosis occurs when blood glucose levels rise high enough to produce a dangerous chemical substance known as ketone. Symptoms of ketoacidosis include rapid breathing, abdominal pain, vomiting and dehydration, and can be serious if not treated immediately.

Some studies have shown that the risk of limb amputation is ten times higher in older people with diabetes, particularly in males with unmanaged diabetes and the onset of nerve damage and poor blood circulation.

These side effects can be life-threatening if left untreated and are often impacted by comorbidities and issues such as mobility or cognition impairments.

What is type 2 diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes differs from type 1 as the body gradually develops a resistance to the effects of insulin, and as a result, loses the capacity to produce enough insulin.

Between 85 – 90 percent of people with diabetes will be diagnosed with type 2, with people aged over 80 almost 30 times more likely to be living with diabetes than people under 40.

A combination of risk factors can cause the onset of type 2 diabetes, including hereditary links, while it can be triggered by weight or unmanaged high blood pressure.

People aged 45 and older are the most likely to develop this type of diabetes as the risks do increase naturally with age. You may develop a natural resistance to insulin as you age, or it may occur due to severe weight gain as you age.

Unlike type 1 diabetes, you can manage type 2 diabetes with medication, rather than just injections. However, depending on how far the disease has progressed, insulin injections may still be required.

Common symptoms of diabetes

The symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes can be wide-ranging and not clearly linked. People with type 2 diabetes may also find their symptoms very mild or non-existent as they reflect signs of the ageing process.

You may also find that a seemingly unrelated trigger is the first warning sign, like a heart attack, vision impairment or foot ulcer.

Common symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Weakness, tiredness and fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Itching
  • Skin infections
  • Unexplained weight loss (type 1)
  • Gradual weight gain (type 2)
  • Leg cramps
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Mood swings
  • Slow healing

Those symptoms are likely to appear suddenly in someone with type 1 diabetes, so it is important to be aware of any changes in your health.

Book to see your General Practitioner (GP) if you have experienced any of the above symptoms and are concerned about your health. Your GP can assist by conducting a blood glucose test to determine if you do have diabetes.

Living with diabetes

When you are diagnosed with diabetes, you want to maintain a healthy lifestyle to prevent the onset of diabetes-related complications.

A healthy diet and regular exercise are essential, as exercise helps to maximise your insulin’s efficiency, lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of heart disease and helps manage weight.

Your life will also change suddenly with a diabetes diagnosis. You have to take daily medication to prevent the disease from progressing.

Blood glucose monitoring is also essential as you want to clearly understand how food, illness and activity all impact your levels. You want to ensure your blood glucose levels remain in a target range, and if they drop you want to be ready to boost them through medication, insulin or eating

If you have type 1 diabetes, or your type 2 diabetes has progressed to a point where your pancreas cannot produce enough insulin, injections will be necessary. They may even be required multiple times a day.

Insulin injections can either be done manually or through an insulin pump – a small battery-operated device – which can be worn on the body to deliver programmed insulin infusions at a steady rate.

Poor management of your diabetes may lead to one or more serious side effects or health complications, including:

  • Hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose)
  • Kidney disease
  • Blindness
  • Hyperglycaemia (high blood glucose)
  • Ketoacidosis
  • Limb amputation
  • Heart attack

The risk factor of developing any of the above conditions shows how serious diabetes can be. If you are unsure about your management or are struggling with the diagnosis, speak to your GP or specialist and they can provide the most appropriate support and advice.

Including your partner or family members in management can help you keep track of your own self-testing and medication schedule, too.

If you do require additional assistance at home, contact My Aged Care on 1800 200 422 to find out what home care support options are available to you. You can learn more about home care in our article, ‘Home care packages‘.

Additional information on diabetes, including the supports available, can be found through the Australian Government’s National Diabetes Services Scheme.

Diabetes Australia also has a host of information available, including news and advice.

Have you been diagnosed with diabetes later in life? Tell us more in the comments below.

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Top health concerns for older people
Keeping healthy physically in your old age
The importance of elderly nutrition


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