Warning: If You’re Diabetic and Over 75, Your Doctor Could Be Over-Treating You—Here’s How

Updated: Feb. 26, 2021

Treating diabetes is vital—until you reach a certain age. After that, the risk of blood sugar dipping too low can outweigh other concerns.

Maya Kruchankova/shutterstockAlthough staying on top of treatment is vital for diabetics, there comes a time when it can be a hindrance. Everyone with a diagnosis should know the key facts about diabetes—here are the silent signs of diabetes you might be missing. Now, researchers from Duke University, the University of Michigan, and VA hospitals from North Carolina and Michigan say that over-treatment of elderly diabetics may actually put them in danger.

As reported on EurekaAlert.org, a new study finds that taking too much medication can cause seniors to experience hypoglycemia. As blood sugar levels fall it can trigger dizziness and disorientation. These symptoms aren’t often recognized by older people as a threat until it’s too late, and falling remains the biggest risk to America’s senior population over the age of 65 years old—and it’s the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries according to the National Council on Aging (NCOA). (Here are some more ways to manage low blood sugar.)

In the study, researchers reviewed the records of 78,000 diabetics, 75 years or older. They found that about 1 in 10 had very low blood sugar levels, suggesting they were being over-treated. Doctors were most likely to over-treat patients with type 2 diabetes who were covered by Medicare and Medicaid insurance. Even more problematic: During the six months of the study, only 14 percent of the patients had their blood sugar medication adjusted to address their low-blood sugar.

The researchers don’t blame doctors, whom they say are focusing on the long-term management of the disease in their patients to reduce the risk of stroke or heart attacks brought on by too-high sugar levels. However, the advantages can be outweighed by the disadvantages once patients get older: After age 70, the risk of harm from taking too many medications or falling due to low blood sugar can be greater than the risk of other chronic conditions.

Treatment for diabetes in the elderly should be determined on a case-by-case basis, say the researchers: “Drugs that can cause low blood sugars, especially insulin, are the most risky,” explained Jeremy Sussman, MD, MS, co-author of the study, a co U-M/VA researcher. “Metformin is safe in the large majority of people, but there are some who will find the side effects outweigh the potential benefit. If you’re worried that you might be over-treated, talk to your doctor. Explain your worries and what you’d like from your diabetes treatment.”

Looking for ways to manage your diabetes? Try these science-backed strategies to help reverse the disease.