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Can Diabetes Be Prevented in Older People?


Updated November 15, 2011

Question: Can Diabetes Be Prevented in Older People?
People in my family have a history of developing diabetes in their sixties and later. What can I do to prevent diabetes?
Answer: Several studies now suggest that most late-onset diabetes (diabetes that begins at age 65 or older) is related to lifestyle choices, and is therefore most likely preventable.

One of the largest such studies was the Cardiovascular Health Study, in which 4883 men and women aged 65 or older were followed for 10 years, and their risk of developing diabetes over this interval was compared to five "low-risk behaviors."

The five low-risk lifestyle choices were:

  • higher than average physical activity (for age group)
  • no smoking (i.e., never smoked, smoked less than 1 pack per day for less than 5 years, or quit smoking more than 20 years ago)
  • light or moderate alcohol use (<2 drinks per day)
  • good dietary score (based on consuming high fiber, low glycemic index, low trans fats, low saturated fats)
  • not overweight (BMI < 25 OR waist circumference less than 88 cm for women or 92 cm for men)

Compared to people who had none of these low-risk behaviors, the risk of developing diabetes among people who engaged in higher levels of physical activity and had good dietary scores was reduced by 50%. If these individuals were also non-smokers and had light or moderate alcohol use, the risk of diabetes was 80% lower. And if they also were not overweight, the risk of developing diabetes was reduced by 89%.

Baby boomers, who (whether they think so or not) are rapidly approaching a time when they will be considered by most objective observers as being among the "older individuals" in our society, should take heed. Diabetes, even late-onset diabetes, causes significant disability and premature death, mainly by producing cardiovascular disease -- even among older people. Especially because it seems increasingly likely that the healthcare system will eventually become unable (or even willing) to rescue people from the results of their own behavior, the very best way to improve your chances of living a long, fruitful life is to depend on that which you can control yourself -- making healthful lifestyle choices.

Here's more about reducing your risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

And here's some help if you want to get started with an exercise program.


Mozaffarian D, Kamineni A, Carnethon M, et al. Lifestyle risk factors and new-onset diabetes mellitus in older adults. Arch Intern Med 2009; 169:798-807.

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