Senior woman injecting herself with insulin.

(Credit: Image Point Fr/Shutterstock)

SHENYANG, China — A concerning new study reveals that the number of older adults developing Type 1 diabetes has tripled during this generation. Compared to 1.3 million seniors over 65 with the condition in 1990, there are now 3.7 million people living with Type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes can shorten a person’s life expectancy, although advances in medicine and diabetes care in high-income countries have helped to change these odds for the better. Using data from 204 countries and regions across the world, researchers in China found the death rate from Type 1 diabetes has fallen by a factor of 13 in higher-income nations compared to low and middle-income countries.

“Our study also advocates for urgent attention to coping strategies for aging populations and older people with type 1 diabetes, rational allocation of health resources, and the provision of targeted guidelines,” the study authors write in a media release.

The study, published in The BMJ, updated the current statistics on Type 1 diabetes, finding that the number of adults over 65 with the condition has tripled in just the past 30 years. The team used data from the Global Burden of Disease and Risk Factors Study 2019 to estimate the number of people currently living with Type 1 diabetes, the number of deaths due to diabetes, and the quality and quantity of life for people living with the condition.

From 1990 to 2019, the number of adults between 65 and 94 living with Type 1 diabetes jumped from 400 to 514 for every 100,000 people. In other words, the prevalence among this age group increased by an unnerving 28%. However, the number of deaths fell by 25% from 4.74 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 3.54 in 2019.

When looking at different variables, scientists found certain features that affected people’s risk and quality of life with Type 1 diabetes. Compared to women, older men had a higher risk of developing Type 1 diabetes. Meanwhile, the death rate dropped across all age groups, especially among women and people younger than 79.

Location was another factor that affected people living with Type 1 diabetes. While more people in North America, Australasia, and Western Europe were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, the highest rates of disability caused by Type 1 diabetes were in low and middle-income countries found in sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and the Caribbean.

What’s Causing the Type 1 Diabetes Surge?

Type 1 diabetes is believed to develop due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors:

  1. Genetic Susceptibility: Certain genes increase the risk of developing Type 1 diabetes, particularly those involving the immune system’s function.
  2. Autoimmune Response: Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.
  3. Environmental Triggers: Factors such as viral infections (like enteroviruses), early dietary factors, or exposure to certain chemicals might trigger the autoimmune process in genetically susceptible individuals.
  4. Geographic Factors: The incidence of Type 1 diabetes tends to be higher in countries farther from the equator, suggesting that Vitamin D (related to sunlight exposure) might play a role.
  5. Early Infant Diet: Early exposure to cow’s milk proteins and the timing of introduction of cereal grains and gluten into a baby’s diet have been studied for their potential roles in Type 1 diabetes development.
  6. Microbiome: Early-life influences on the gut microbiome might impact immune function and the development of autoimmunity.

Among all the challenges associated with living with Type 1 diabetes, the most common issue was trouble maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. The 30-year study showed that older adults over 65 had the most trouble keeping blood sugar levels down after a period of fasting. Still, the authors note that while there are still challenges regarding equal access to diabetes care, the improvement in people’s life expectancy and quality of life is encouraging.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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