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Diabetes and Aging… What You Need to Know

In the United States, it has been estimated that roughly 30 million people (approximately 9 percent of the total population) have diabetes. These numbers have been steadily trending upward for decades and the cause is generally attributed to rising rates of obesity and the increasing consumption of sugars and highly processed foods. Additionally, aging can contribute to blood sugar levels rising in some people, with about one in every four Americans over 60 having been diagnosed as diabetic.

By far, the most common type of diabetes is Type 2, a condition where, even though the pancreas produces insulin, the body’s cells don’t use it properly to absorb the sugar (or glucose) and convert it into energy. With Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin. In either case, the amount of sugar in the blood is consistently too high and, over time, it damages the peripheral arteries and nerve endings. As the damaged nerves and reduced circulation increases, it can cause uncomfortable tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, often referred to as neuropathy, as well as vision problems, kidney issues, hypertension, heart disease and sexual disfunction.

If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes or been told your blood sugar “is a little high,” here are a few symptoms you should keep in mind that might indicate your diabetes is getting worse.

  • Gum disease. Diabetes can weaken your immune system and affect your ability to fight off infections, including gum disease. So take care of your teeth and gums every day and see your dentist at least twice a year.
  • Vision problems. The capillaries that nourish your retinas are at risk of being damaged by diabetes, causing small ruptures that create blind spots. Cataracts and glaucoma are also a potential problem. See an eye doctor or retina specialist once a year for a check-up.
  • Sexual disfunction. Diabetes can damage nerves and blood vessels in your internal organs, including the sex organs. Women may experience pain during intercourse, reduced lubrication and less sensation. In men, the result is often erectile disfunction.
  • Lingering flu. Because diabetes weakens the immune system, it can be more difficult to kick the flu, putting you at risk for bronchitis, sinus infections and pneumonia.
  • Tendency to trip or fall. If you have neuropathy in your feet, it can be difficult to sense where they are, leading to falls. Plus, some diabetes medications, or even low blood sugar, can make you feel dizzy.

The good news is that there are steps you can take that will help you reduce your blood sugar and help you start seeing benefits quickly. One of the keys to managing blood sugar is losing weight and getting exercise. First, active muscles burn sugar for energy, which takes it out of your blood stream. Plus, if your muscles are toned, they continue to burn sugar at a higher rate even when you’re not exercising. Second, excess weight simply puts excess strain on your whole body, including the pancreas, which has to produce more insulin to keep up with what you eat.

Diet is also an important part of managing diabetes. People who are diabetic have to be careful with carbohydrates, and not all carbs are created equal. Fresh vegetables, whole grains and fruit are all forms of carbohydrate that take a long time to convert to glucose. On the other hand, sugar and starches like white bread and potatoes convert to glucose quickly, which means your blood sugar levels spike quickly and overwhelm your body’s ability to process it. Look for a meal plan that includes healthy proteins and moderate amounts of complex carbs and fats.

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