Diabetes is a chronic disease that’s common among older adults, affecting an estimated 33% of people aged 65 and older.
Diabetes symptoms in older adults can range from mild to severe. They include excessive thirst and urination, blurry vision, and fatigue.
If you have any of these diabetes warning signs, talk to your doctor. Detecting diabetes early can help prevent serious complications down the road.
Diabetes is a chronic disease that’s common among older adults, affecting an estimated 33% of people aged 65 and older.1 It happens when the body doesn't produce enough insulin or is unable to use insulin properly—or a combination of the two. When your body has trouble with insulin, you end up with too much glucose in your bloodstream (hyperglycemia), which can eventually wreak havoc with your health.
The most common form of diabetes in older adults is type 2 diabetes. In fact, nearly half of all people with type 2 diabetes are people aged 65 or older.2 While this condition is serious at any age, older adults with diabetes face unique challenges. This group is at greater risk for developing complications related to diabetes, including hypoglycemia, heart disease, and kidney failure. That’s why it’s important to learn about diabetes symptoms if you’re an older adult.
What are the symptoms of diabetes in older adults?
Diabetes signs and symptoms vary from person to person. Some people have such mild symptoms that they don't notice them, while others have clear signs something is not quite right. Here are 10 diabetes warning signs to look out for.
- Increased thirst and urination: Diabetes causes a buildup of excess glucose in your blood, which sends your kidneys into overdrive. As the kidneys work to filter out this glucose, excess glucose is excreted into your urine, drawing fluids from your body along with it. This can leave you feeling more thirsty than normal (polydipsia), which causes you to drink more liquid and urinate more frequently (polyuria).
- Excessive fatigue: Are you feeling more sluggish than usual lately? Another symptom of diabetes in older adults is extreme tiredness. This is because when your blood sugar levels are high, it’s harder for your body to convert glucose into energy. Another reason for fatigue could be diabetes-related dehydration.
- Wounds that heal more slowly: Some older adults with diabetes notice that cuts and bruises seem to heal at a slower pace than usual. Another warning sign is the development of sores (especially on the feet) and skin infections that don’t resolve quickly. This may be due to impeded circulation caused by high blood glucose, which hinders the body’s natural healing process. Women who have diabetes may also experience more frequent bladder infections and vaginal yeast infections.
- Dizziness and/or fainting: Older adults with diabetes may experience episodes of low blood sugar, a condition called hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia is defined as a blood sugar level below 70 mg. When blood glucose levels plummet, it can cause weakness, dizziness, shakiness, confusion, and even fainting. People with diabetes can elevate their blood sugar quickly by drinking fruit juice or eating glucose tablets.
- Headaches: Our brain requires consistent delivery of glucose to function properly, which is not always compatible with the blood sugar dips and spikes associated with diabetes. It's no surprise, then, that headaches are a common symptom of diabetes in older adults.
- Tingling sensations in hands and feet: Roughly half of people with diabetes have nerve damage, especially those who have been diabetic for many years.3 The medical name for this diabetes symptom is peripheral neuropathy, which can cause tingling, numbness, weakness, or even pain in hands and feet.
- Blurry vision: High blood glucose levels can draw fluid out of the lenses of the eyes, making it difficult for them to focus. When not properly treated, this diabetes symptom can cause the creation of new blood vessels behind your retina, damaging existing vessels. Eventually, it can lead to partial or complete vision loss.
- Gum problems: Another symptom of diabetes in older adults is red, swollen, painful gums. This is because diabetes can compromise your body's immune system, increasing the likelihood of infection in your gums and in the bones that anchor your teeth. Some warning signs to look out for in addition to inflamed gums include loose teeth, sores, and pus-filled pockets in your gums.
- Increased appetite: Have you noticed an unusual bump in your appetite, particularly when it comes to sugary foods? Another warning sign of diabetes in seniors is being hungrier than usual—a condition called polyphagia. Polyphagia happens when diabetes prevents dietary glucose from reaching your cells, leading you to feel hunger pangs even after you’ve eaten a big meal. This condition can trigger a frustrating cycle of eating more, which leads to higher blood sugar, which further increases your sugar cravings.
- Dry mouth: Also known as xerostomia, dry mouth is another sign of diabetes in older adults. Often accompanied by dry, cracked lips and a rough-feeling tongue, this uncomfortable sensation occurs when your mouth is unable to produce enough saliva. This diabetes symptom may come and go with fluctuations in your blood sugar.
What should I do if I have symptoms of diabetes?
If you’re experiencing any of the diabetes symptoms listed above, tell your healthcare provider. They will likely use one or more of the following tests to screen you for diabetes:
- A1C test: This test measures the average of your blood glucose levels over the course of two or three months.
- Oral glucose tolerance test: With this diabetes test, your blood glucose is measured both before and two hours after you drink a glucose-containing liquid. The objective is to see how your body responds to the glucose.
- Fasting plasma glucose test: For this blood test, you must refrain from eating for at least 8 hours. Another version of this test is the random plasma glucose test, which can be given at any time of day without the need for fasting.
If your test results show you have diabetes, your doctor will work with you to create a comprehensive diabetes management plan. With the right treatment, it is possible to lead a healthy, active, and enjoyable life with diabetes.
The American Diabetes Association recommends screening for diabetes every three years in adults aged 45+ (and people at any age with multiple risk factors, such as obesity). By getting screened regularly and watching out for diabetes symptoms, you can increase your chances of early detection, prevent serious complications, and stay healthy for longer.
Want to know more? Visit our Diabetes for Older Adults resource library.
1. Special Considerations for Older Adults With Diabetes, Endocrine Society. Found on the internet at https://www.endocrine.org/-/media/endocrine/files/patient-engagement/patient-guides/patient_guide_special_consideration_for_older_adults_with_diabetes.pdf
2. Type 2 diabetes mellitus in older adults: clinical considerations and management, Nature Reviews Endocrinology. Found on the internet at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41574-021-00512-2
3. Understanding neuropathy and your diabetes, American Diabetes Association. Found on the internet at https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes/neuropathy