Millions of older Americans have “prediabetes,” which means their glucose levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be called diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Aging. People with prediabetes have a greater chance of developing type 2 diabetes and having a heart attack or stroke.
There are steps a person can take if they have prediabetes. Healthy eating and being physically active can make a big difference. Talk to a doctor and set up a plan to help make healthier food choices and get regular exercise. Get help to stop smoking because smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to develop type 2 diabetes, the NIH reports.
Symptoms of type 2 diabetes may include feeling tired, increased hunger or thirst, losing weight without trying, urinating often or having trouble with blurred vision. One might also get skin infections or heal slowly from cuts and bruises. The NIH states some people with type 2 diabetes may not realize they have it because symptoms often develop slowly and go unnoticed. Sometimes older adults dismiss these symptoms as “getting old,” but they can be signs of a serious problem.
There are two main kinds of diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not make insulin. Although older adults can develop this type of diabetes, it begins most often in children and young adults, who then have diabetes for life. In type 2 diabetes, the body does not make or use insulin well. It is the most common kind of diabetes and occurs most often in middle-aged and older adults, but it can also affect children. The chance of getting type 2 diabetes is higher if a person is overweight, inactive or has a family history of diabetes, according to the NIH. It is important to manage diabetes because over time it can cause serious health problems such as heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, eye problems and nerve damage that may lead to amputation. Also, people with type 2 diabetes may be at greater risk for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, the NIH reports.
Dr. Jodi-Ann Heath, M.D., of Emory at Snellville Primary Care sees patients of all ages, including many senior citizens who are dealing with the risks of diabetes and high blood pressure.
“I always say exercise is one of the best things,” Heath said, adding that she also recommends cutting back on salt, “which nobody wants to hear.”
“I tell them it’s an acquired taste that will serve them with so much good in the long run,” the doctor said. “It’s o.k. to treat yourself every once in a while. I also tell them to cut back on carbs—especially my vegetarians. They don’t eat meat and try to fill themselves up on carbs. (Cutting back on carbs) helps diabetics to lower blood sugar. You hear diabetes and think sweet stuff, but carbs are complex sugars and when digested, break down into simple sugars.”
Cutting back on carbs also helps with weight loss, Heath said, adding that the slower a person is to lose the weight, the slower they will be to gain it back.
“Because just being human, we like that instant gratification and think if we work out one day, we should lose five pounds,” the doctor said. “It doesn’t work that way. Losing a pound a week or even three or so pounds a month—that’s good weight loss...Make it a lifestyle change and not just for the moment. It’s something you have to keep up.”
A native of Jamaica, who moved to New York about 20 years ago, Heath received her medical degree from the University of Medicine and Health Sciences St. Kitts in the Caribbean. She took her family medicine residency at Gwinnett Medical Center. Having grown up in the Caribbean, Heath says she “appreciates diversity” among her patients. She has traveled the world to help understand other cultures and brings this perspective to her work with Emory patients. When meeting a patient, Heath often begins by asking them about their background.
“I ask where their family is from as it helps me understand their culture—the foods they eat,” she said.
“If they have diabetes, for example, I will have a better idea how to advise them on their diet.”
Heath said she especially loves developing long-term relationships with her patients, which is especially possible in primary care. “When I see them over many years, they become like family,” the doctor said.
Most of her own family still lives in New York, including her parents and two younger sisters. A newlywed since September, Heath married Montana Solomon, a singer and reggae artist who performs around Atlanta and does a lot of background singing and writing for other reggae artists.
She is the first and only physician in her family and says she chose medicine because she loves to interact with people. After completing her residency at Gwinnett Medical in Lawrenceville, Heath worked as a member of the faculty with the residency program. She stayed there a year and for the next six months, worked in urgent and primary care before joining Emory about a year ago.
Heath is at the Emory at Snellville Primary Care at 2356 Lenora Church Road in Snellville. “I do everything, but my interest is in women’s health,” she said. “I have a lot of diabetic patients, hypertensive patients, patients who’ve had strokes and patients who want their wellness checks.”
High blood pressure, or hypertension is a major health problem common in older adults. The vascular system changes with age. Arteries get stiffer, causing blood pressure to go up. This can be true even for people who have heart-healthy habits and feel just fine, according to the NIH. High blood pressure, sometimes called “the silent killer” often does not cause signs of illness that one can see or feel. Though it affects almost half of all adults, many may not even be aware they have it. If high blood pressure is not controlled with lifestyle changes and medication, it can lead to serious health problems, such as cardiovascular disease including heart disease and stroke, vascular dementia, eye problems and kidney disease. The NIH states the good news is that blood pressure can be controlled in most people.
“I always tell my patients being well mentally...will make a big difference in your overall health,” Heath said. “A lot of times some illnesses can manifest from being stressed—especially high blood pressure.”