DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: What can you tell me about diabetes and how can a person know if they have it? My sister and her husband, who are ages 65 and 63 were both recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and neither had a clue. — Surprised Sister 

DEAR SURPRISED: It’s called the “silent disease” for a reason. With no significant warning signs, there are millions of people who have diabetes today that don’t realize it. Here’s what you should know.

The diabetes epidemic in the U.S. is huge, especially among older adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 12 million seniors, age 60 and older — roughly 23 percent of people in this age group — have diabetes today, but nearly half of them don’t know it. The danger of undiagnosed diabetes is that, left untreated, it increases the risk of heart disease and stroke and can escalate into kidney failure, blindness, loss of limbs and death.

There are a variety of factors that can put you at risk of getting type 2 diabetes, including your:

Family history: The more relatives you have with the disease, the higher your risk.

Weight: Being overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more. See to calculate your BMI. The heavier you are, the greater your risk. Also, having excess fat around your waist, rather than around the hips and thighs increases your risk.

Age: Your risk increases as you get older, especially after age 45.

Blood pressure: Having high blood pressure — 140/90 or higher.

Cholesterol: Having low HDL (good) cholesterol under 35 mg/dL or high triglycerides over 250 mg/dL.

Race: Hispanic, Asian, African or Native Americans are more vulnerable.

To help you determine your risk, the American Diabetes Association has a quick, online quiz you can take for free at

The tricky thing about diabetes is that the symptoms (fatigue, increased hunger, excessive thirst, frequent urination, unexplained weight loss, blurred vision, slow healing cuts or sores, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet) usually seem harmless, and often don’t appear for years until significant damage to the blood vessels has already occurred. That’s why beginning at age 45, everyone should be tested for diabetes every three years. And you should get tested annually if you have any of the previously listed factors that put you at risk.

There are several tests your doctor can give you to determine whether you have diabetes including the “fasting blood glucose test “or the “oral glucose tolerance test,” that require an eight hour fast before you take it. And the “hemoglobin A1C test” or “random blood glucose test,” that can be taken any time regardless of when you ate.

If you’re reluctant to visit your doctor to get tested, an alternative is to test yourself. To do that, go to your pharmacy and buy a blood glucose monitor (many of them cost under $20). Fast overnight, and check your blood sugar in the morning. If your result is less than 100, you’re OK. But if your blood glucose is 100 to 125, then you have prediabetes. And if your reading is higher than 125, you may have diabetes. If your reading is above 100, you need to visit your doctor to develop a plan to get it under control. In many cases lifestyle changes like losing weight, exercising, eating a healthy diet and cutting back on carbohydrates may be all you need to do to get your diabetes under control. For others who need more help, many medications are available.

SAVVY TIPS: Medicare provides free diabetes screenings to seniors with increased risk factors — see or call 800-633-4227 to learn more. And for more information including dozens of free publications on all aspects of diabetes visit the National Diabetes Education Program at, or call 888-693-6337.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

— Hometown Content