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Diabetes is a chronic condition characterised by high levels of glucose in the blood. It is caused either by the body’s inability to produce insulin (a hormone produced by the pancreas to control blood glucose (sugar) levels), or by the body not being able to use insulin effectively . There are 3 main types of diabetes:
Based on the 2014-15 ABS National Health Survey, around 1 in 6 people aged over 65 reported having diabetes—just over 574,000 people, increasing from 446,800 people in 2011–12 [1,2]. The rate of diabetes tends to increase with age, with the highest prevalence (19.4%) reported in people aged 85 and over. Men reported slightly higher rates of diabetes than women, accounting for 55% of cases in people aged 65 and over. Consistent with the wider population, the most common type of diabetes reported by people aged 65 and over was type 2 diabetes—accounting for more than 9 in 10 cases (90%) (Figure 1) .
Sources: ABS .
The rate of self-reported diabetes for people aged 65 and over has more than tripled over the last 2 decades—from 5.5% in 1989–90 to 17.4% in 2014–15 (Figure 2). This increase is likely due to a number of factors including: an increased prevalence of risk factors, improved public awareness, better detection techniques, improved survival through management techniques, and an ageing population .
Sources: ABS  ABS  AIHW .
The cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, although it is believed to result from genetic predisposition and environmental factors. Type 2 diabetes, whilst having certain genetic susceptibilities, is largely preventable as many of its risk factors are modifiable. These include obesity, insufficient physical activity, unhealthy diet, tobacco smoking, high blood pressure and high blood lipids. Further information on the prevalence of some of the main lifestyle risk factors in the older population is given in Healthy ageing.
Diabetes can result in a number of acute and chronic health conditions, including heart attack and stroke, kidney damage, vision loss, nerve damage (neuropathy) and delayed wound healing, which can lead also to lower limb amputation. Early and intensive management of blood sugar levels can delay the onset or slow the progression of these complications .
Management of type 2 diabetes in older people using medication is more complex. For older people, the benefits of intensive glucose control need to be weighed against the associated risks, such as the impact of medications on the kidneys and the risk of interaction with other medicines used for managing multiple conditions (polypharmacy) .
In 2012, the pharmacological management of type 2 diabetes in a concessional population of people aged 65 and over was examined, and the following key findings were made :
Diabetes was recorded as a diagnosis for over 1 million hospitalisations in 2014–15—representing 10% of all hospitalisations that year. There were 56,500 hospitalisations related to type 1 diabetes, and 898,000 hospitalisations related to type 2 diabetes .
Hospitalisation rates for type 2 diabetes increased with age, with the majority (87%) of hospitalisations recorded in people aged 55 and over. The hospitalisation rate is highest in people aged 75–84, at 22,500 per 100,000 population (Figure 3).
Source: AIHW .
In 2014, diabetes was the sixth leading cause of death in Australia. A total of 15,700 deaths were related to diabetes, accounting for 10% of all deaths that year . Diabetes was the underlying cause for 4,300 of these deaths (28% of all diabetes deaths) and an associated cause of death for a further 11,400 deaths (72%). Diabetes death rates increased with age (Figure 4). The death rate for people aged 85 and over was 3 times as high as those aged 75–84 .
Diabetes is an important health issue for older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with just under 2 in 5 (38%) Indigenous people aged 55 and over diagnosed with diabetes (based on HbA1c testing), compared to 12% of non-Indigenous Australians .
There were 52,048 hospitalisations related to diabetes for Indigenous people in 2013-14, and 90% of these hospitalisations had either a principal or additional diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. The type 2 diabetes hospitalisation rate was 4 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians, and the rate of hospitalisation increased with age (Figure 5). The highest rate was observed for people aged 65-74 (40,180 per 100,000) .
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, diabetes was the second leading cause of death in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 2015. The standardised death rate was 4.7 times the rate in non-Indigenous people (76.9 and 16.3 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively) .
Source: AIHW .