According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34.2 million people in the United States have diabetes, and 1 in 5 don’t even know they have it. Understanding diabetes and how to manage it is so important to the collective health of our community, and especially for aging adults.

It’s common knowledge that diabetes is linked to diet and exercise, but what is this chronic health condition? Essentially, diabetes affects how the body turns food into energy. Most of the food we consume is broken down into sugar and released into our bloodstream, and as our blood sugar goes up, our pancreas releases insulin. With diabetics, either the body does not produce enough insulin, or it doesn’t use it efficiently. With too much blood sugar in the bloodstream, over time organs like the heart, eyes and kidneys become damaged.

There are three types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a genetic disorder, often showing up early in life, where the immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Type 2 is largely related to poor diet and physical inactivity, developing over time. Gestational diabetes develops during pregnancy due to hormonal changes that make it harder for the mother to process blood sugar efficiently.

Risk for developing Type 2 diabetes increases with age because of increased insulin resistance and impaired pancreatic function as we get older. Typical warning signs of Type 2 diabetes include unintentional weight loss, increased urination and thirst, blurry vision, numbness or tingling in hands/feet, slow healing sores and fatigue. Older adults are at a higher risk for developing the condition, but often don’t recognize these symptoms because they develop slowly, or are simply dismissed as part of “getting old.”

Good news – Type 2 diabetes can be managed (and prevented) with proper nutrition and physical activity. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, while limiting added sugars, and participating in regular exercise helps control blood glucose levels. Other lifestyle modifications such as stress reduction, tobacco avoidance and improved sleep quality can also help control blood glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol – improving health outcomes overall.

Those general recommendations sound easy enough but can seem daunting in practice. Here are some healthy habits broken down into simple steps to easily incorporate into a routine:

• Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day – try to include more whole grains and high-fiber foods.

• Limit added sugars to prevent spikes in blood sugars.

• Limit trans fats from foods like baked goods and fried foods. Choose monounsaturated fats like cooking oils made from plants and seeds, and polyunsaturated fats like fish.

• Choose lean meats, fish, meat alternatives and legumes for good protein sources.

• Limit sodium to 2300 mg per day.

• Choose water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages or alcohol.

• Monitor portion sizes, especially when dining out.

• Do not skip meals and space them evenly throughout the day.

• Engage in regular physical activity, both aerobic and muscle strengthening.

• Find activities that help reduce stress such as meditation, exercise, visiting with others, reading or listening to music.

Individuals with diabetes should test blood sugars regularly and take medication appropriately to keep in a target range specified by a doctor. They should also monitor feet, skin and eyes regularly to catch potential problems early.

Aging adults with diabetes should consider the benefits of living at a senior living community. These communities generally have healthy dining options that guarantee nutritional needs are being met. Oftentimes, there are group exercise classes that not only help build muscle and strength, but also community. Access to specialized experts in fitness, health, wellness and nutrition can also help individuals manage their diabetes and meet overall health goals in a proactive and thoughtful way.

Diabetes is a chronic disease, but it can be well managed with some lifestyle modifications and medication. November may be National Diabetes Month, but take these simple steps to prevent or manage life with diabetes year-round.

Lindsay Weisberg is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Trillium Woods, a life plan community in Plymouth.

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