Diabetes affects 25.8 million adults, or 8.3 percent of the U.S. population. In particular, 12.6 million women aged 20 years or older face this challenging lifestyle condition; there’s a good chance that you know of someone or provide care to an individual who deals with diabetes.

What is diabetes and how can it affect women? A chronic disease, it occurs when the body fails to produce and/or use insulin, which is a hormone that is used to convert sugar and other foods into energy. The categories include type 1 (body produces no insulin), type 2 (body does not produce enough insulin or the body doesn’t use it correctly) and gestational (pregnant women). Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes.

The risk of heart disease, which is the most common complication of diabetes, is more serious among women than men. Among people with diabetes who have had a heart attack, women have lower survival rates and a poorer quality of life than men. In addition, women are at greater risk of blindness from diabetes than men, and women with diabetes have a shorter life expectancy than women without it. Death rates for women aged 25-44 years with diabetes are more than three times the rate for women without diabetes.

In addition, women aged 65 years or older with diabetes are more likely to be widowed, live alone and/or rely on someone else to provide their care. The risk of diabetes increases with age, and as the lifespan of women increases, so does the population of diabetic women.

It is essential as a caregiver to understand the basics when caring for someone with diabetes so you can provide the best possible care and enhance their quality of life:

  • Talk with their health care provider so you understand the specifics for the individual related to diet, medications and blood glucose testing.
  • Provide the person under your care with some type of bracelet or necklace to wear that identifies them as a diabetic.
  • Make sure to include controlled portions of whole grains, low-fat dairy products, fruits and vegetables in meals and snacks, as a diabetic-friendly diet can be challenging.
  • Encourage them to maintain a healthy weight and active lifestyle, but understand that exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous. Remember, women are at greater risk for heart disease. Weight control and activity are crucial in preventing heart disease.
  • Talk with them about the challenges of their condition, as diabetic women have a greater risk of depression. Providing support and understanding may alleviate these feelings.

Although diabetes in women presents unique challenges, it is possible to manage the complications while caring for someone by following professional recommendations. The American Diabetes Association has resources and information specific to women and diabetes ranging from prevention to treatment options.

Michele Mongillo, RN, MSN,is a clinical director who has over 20 years of nursing experience in a variety of settings including acute care, head/spinal cord injury rehabilitation and long-term care.