Should Older Adults with Diabetes Maintain Tight Blood Sugar Control?

Journal of the American Geriatrics Society Research Summary

More than 25 percent of adults aged 65 or older have diabetes. Diabetes develops when the amount of sugar (or glucose) in your blood becomes too high. This happens either because your body doesn’t make enough insulin (type 1 diabetes), or because your body doesn’t respond to the insulin it makes (type 2 diabetes).

Older adults are especially likely to develop type 2 diabetes, because as we age, our bodies are less able to process sugars. What’s more, being overweight can increase our chances of developing the condition.

If you’re an older adult with type 2 diabetes, it’s likely that your healthcare provider has recommended that you carefully maintain your blood sugar levels with diet, exercise, and perhaps even medication. Blood sugar levels are typically monitored with a simple blood test that gives you a result called your “A1c level.” This is the percentage measurement of glucose levels in your blood over about three months.

But what should your target blood sugar level (A1c) be? If it’s too low, you could be at risk for hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. When this occurs, you can fall or lose consciousness.

In a new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers say the evidence against “tightly” controlling blood sugar levels for older adults—the practice of targeting a more specific A1c level, often through the use of medications—hasn’t filtered down to clinics and primary care practices, where there may be value in pursuing looser target levels for blood sugar.

In their study, researchers examined records from the Diabetes Collaborative Registry for more than 30,000 adults aged 75 or older. In the study, 26 percent of older adults with diabetes had A1c levels less than 7 percent. They were treated with medications that have a high risk for lowering blood sugar to the point that someone could be at increased risk for a fall or losing consciousness.

Contrary to what researchers thought, these factors were each linked to having tight blood sugar control using a “high-risk” medication: older age, being male, or having heart failure, chronic kidney disease, and coronary artery disease. According to the researchers, people with these characteristics or conditions have the most potential to be harmed if they experience hypoglycemia and their A1c goals should be more relaxed.

The researchers concluded that we need more specific guidance about how to safely treat older adults with diabetes, and that we need to translate that guidance to help busy clinicians and their patients.

 This summary is from “Use of Intensive Glycemic Management in Older Adults with Diabetes.” It appears online ahead of print in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study authors are Suzanne V. Arnold, MD, MHA; Kasia J. Lipska MD; Jingyan Wang MS; Leo Seman, MD PhD; Sanjeev N. Mehta MD, MPH; and Mikhail Kosiborod MD.

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