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Diabetes is a chronic condition characterised by high levels of glucose in the blood. It is caused either by the body’s inability to produce insulin (a hormone produced by the pancreas to control blood glucose (sugar) levels), or by the body not being able to use insulin effectively [7]. There are 3 main types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes is an unpreventable autoimmune disease that develops when the immune system destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Although type 1 diabetes can occur at any age, it mainly develops during childhood and adolescence. Insulin replacement is an essential treatment for type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes requires a careful balance of diet, exercise and insulin intake.
  • Type 2 diabetes is largely preventable by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and occurs when the body becomes resistant to the insulin being produced by the pancreas and/or the amount produced is inadequate to meet the body's needs. When first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, blood glucose levels can often be maintained at normal levels through lifestyle modification and/or oral glucose lowering medication, although insulin may eventually be required as the condition progresses.
  • Gestational diabetes is a condition marked by high blood sugar levels appearing for the first time during pregnancy that usually disappears once the baby is born. Gestational diabetes, much like type 2 diabetes, can be associated with lifestyle factors and is treated with a combination of lifestyle modifications and medication [7, 9].


Based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2014–15 National Health Survey (NHS), around 1 in 6 people aged over 65 reported having diabetes—just over 574,000 people [2]. The rate of diabetes tends to increase with age, with the highest prevalence (19.4%) reported in people aged 85 and over. Men reported slightly higher rates of diabetes than women, accounting for 55% of cases in people aged 65 and over. Consistent with the wider population, the most common type of diabetes reported by people aged 65 and over was type 2 diabetes—accounting for more than 9 in 10 cases (90%) (Figure 1) [2].

Figure 1: Rate of self-reported diabetes, by type of diabetes and age group, 2014–15

Column chart shows rates of T1, T2 and all diabetes for people aged 65-74, 75-84 and 85+ years.

Sources: ABS [2].

The rate of self-reported diabetes for people aged 65 and over has more than tripled over the last 2 decades—from 5.5% in 1989–90 to 17.4% in 2014–15 (Figure 2). This increase is likely due to a number of factors including: an increased prevalence of risk factors, improved public awareness, better detection techniques, improved survival through management techniques, and an ageing population [8].

Figure 2: Rate of self-reported diabetes, 1989–90 to 2014–15

Column charts shows diabetes rates for people aged 65+ are around 5 times higher than rates for all ages, and have tripled from 1989-90 to 2014-15.

Sources: ABS [1] ABS [2] AIHW [4].

Causes and complications

The cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, although it is believed to result from genetic predisposition and environmental factors. Type 2 diabetes, whilst having certain genetic susceptibilities, is largely preventable as many of its risk factors are modifiable. These include obesity, insufficient physical activity, unhealthy diet, tobacco smoking, high blood pressure and high blood lipids. Further information on the prevalence of some of the main lifestyle risk factors in the older population is given in Healthy ageing.

Diabetes can result in a number of acute and chronic health conditions, including heart attack and stroke, kidney damage, vision loss, nerve damage (neuropathy) and delayed wound healing, which can lead also to lower limb amputation. Early and intensive management of blood sugar levels can delay the onset or slow the progression of these complications [10].

Type 2 diabetes pharmacological management in older people

Management of type 2 diabetes in older people using medication is more complex. For older people, the benefits of intensive glucose control need to be weighed against the associated risks, such as the impact of medications on the kidneys and the risk of interaction with other medicines used for managing multiple conditions (polypharmacy) [8].

In 2012, the pharmacological management of type 2 diabetes in a concessional population of people aged 65 and over was examined, and the following key findings were made [8]:

graphic for diabetes pharmacological management proportions.
  • 8 in 10 (85%) were supplied with glucose lowering medicines
  • 2 in 10 (20%) were supplied with insulin
  • 4 in 10 (40%) were supplied with medicines as a monotherapy (a single medication)
  • 3 in 10 (33%) were supplied with dual therapy
  • 1 in 10 (11%) were supplied with triple therapy


Diabetes was recorded as a diagnosis for over 1 million hospitalisations in 2014–15—representing 10% of all hospitalisations that year. There were 56,500 hospitalisations related to type 1 diabetes, and 898,000 hospitalisations related to type 2 diabetes [7].

Hospitalisation rates for type 2 diabetes increased with age, with the majority (87%) of hospitalisations recorded in people aged 55 and over. The hospitalisation rate is highest in people aged 75–84, at 22,500 per 100,000 population (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Hospitalisations with type 2 diabetes, by age group and sex, 2014–15

Column chart shows T2 diabetes hospitalisation rates are significantly higher for males than females, and the rates for both sexes tend to increase with age.

Source: AIHW [7].


In 2014, diabetes was the sixth leading cause of death in Australia. A total of 15,700 deaths were related to diabetes, accounting for 10% of all deaths that year [7]. Diabetes was the underlying cause for 4,300 of these deaths (28% of all diabetes deaths) and an associated cause of death for a further 11,400 deaths (72%). Diabetes death rates increased with age (Figure 4). The death rate for people aged 85 and over was 3 times as high as those aged 75–84 [7].

Figure 4: Diabetes deaths, by age group and sex, 2014

Column chart shows deaths from diabetes increase rapidly with age, and are more common among males than females.

Source: AIHW [7].

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Diabetes is an important health issue for older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, based on data from the ABS 2011–13 Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey. Just under 2 in 5 (38%) Indigenous people aged 55 and over were diagnosed with diabetes (based on HbA1c testing), compared to 12% of non-Indigenous Australians [6].

There were 52,048 hospitalisations related to diabetes for Indigenous people in 2013-14, and 90% of these hospitalisations had either a principal or additional diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. The type 2 diabetes hospitalisation rate was 4 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians, and the rate of hospitalisation increased with age (Figure 5). The highest rate was observed for people aged 65-74 (40,180 per 100,000) [5].

According to the ABS, diabetes was the second leading cause of death in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 2015. The standardised death rate was 4.7 times the rate in non-Indigenous people (76.9 and 16.3 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively) [3].

Figure 5: Hospitalisations with type 2 diabetes, by Indigenous status, 2013–14

Column chart shows rates of T2 diabetes hospitalisations are higher among Indigenous people than non-Indigenous people.

Source: AIHW [5].


  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2013. Australian Health Survey: First Results, 2011-2012. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.003. Canberra: ABS.
  2. ABS 2015. National Health Survey: first results, 2014–15—Australia. ABS cat. no. 4364.0. Canberra: ABS.
  3. ABS 2016. Causes of Death, Australia, 2015. ABS cat.no.3303.0. Canberra: ABS.
  4. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2007. Older Australia at a glance: 4th edition. Cat. no. AGE 52. Canberra: AIHW.
  5. AIHW 2015a. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease—Australian facts: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Cardiovascular, diabetes and chronic kidney disease series no. 5. Cat. no. CDK 5. Canberra: AIHW.
  6. AIHW 2015b. The health and welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: 2015. Cat. no. IHW 147. Canberra: AIHW.
  7. AIHW 2016a. Diabetes. Viewed 15 January 2017, <http://www.aihw.gov.au/ diabetes/>
  8. AIHW 2016b. Use of medicines by older people with type 2 diabetes. Cat. no. CVD 76. Canberra: AIHW.
  9. Department of Health 2015 Diabetes. Viewed 11 August 2016,<http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/chronic-diabetes>
  10. Diabetes Australia 2015. Preventing complications. Viewed 17 October 2016,https://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/preventing-complications