As we go through life, some health recommendations change based on our age. For example, adolescents generally need to take in more nutrients (macro and micro) as they encounter puberty and its bodily changes, including growth spurts.
On the other hand, older adults generally have lower calorie needs, but similar or even increased nutrient needs compared to younger adults. That’s because as we age, or should we say, when we reach a certain age, there’s reduced physical activity, more age-related bone and muscle mass loss, and changes in metabolism and how our body absorbs certain vitamins and nutrients. In addition, chronic health conditions may catch up to us, resulting in use of more prescription medications.
And women peri- and post-menopause, as well as during menopause itself, face shifts in body composition, changes in mood, and possibly added hormones.
As we grow older, our metabolism slows down and losing weight becomes more difficult. Who among us hasn’t struggled to take off a few getting-ready-for-summer pounds that slipped right off in our early 20s? And let’s not even talk about how our weight unwantedly redistributes itself in our 50s and beyond.
Our cholesterol levels usually increase with age, potentially requiring different advice on managing cholesterol. Our arteries get stiffer and more constricted, pushing our blood pressure up.
And there’s another change that you might not be aware of—the influence of age on our blood sugar levels. Because as we age, our blood sugar levels may get higher and stay higher for longer periods of time.
Why is Maintaining “Normal” Blood Sugar Levels at All Ages Important?
First of all, “normal” numbers for blood sugar can be different depending on our circumstances, for example, if you have diabetes or are in the prediabetes range. Given that our numbers may go up as we get older, you might find yourself in a “new normal.” That’s okay. As long as you’re aware of what your target recommendations are and you test your blood sugar levels regularly so that you make changes, as needed, to keep you in that healthy range.
Before we get to the numbers, let’s talk about why managing your blood sugar numbers is important—just as important, in fact, as managing your cholesterol levels and your blood pressure stats.
If your blood sugar (also referred to as blood glucose) levels are too high or too low, you’re putting your health at risk. And here’s why.
When your blood sugar numbers are higher than they should be you’re at a higher risk for developing diabetes. This chronic condition comes with its own set of higher risks and it’s not a one-and-done problem. Diabetes is a chronic condition that brings with it a whole bag of other health-related complications. For example, the potential problems associated with diabetes include obesity, heart disease (diabetes may double your risk), eye disease (total blindness is on the table), nerve damage (known as diabetic neuropathy), kidney disease, skin conditions and infections, and sexual problems.
If you don’t yet have diabetes, but your blood sugar levels are high, you’re not out of the woods. You could be in a warning period that’s known as prediabetes, based on where your blood glucose levels fall. You may have symptoms such as frequent urination, a thirst-urge, headaches, fatigue and blurred vision. But with or without symptoms, preventing progression of high blood sugar is easily detected by in-lab or at-home blood sugar level testing. You’ll want to get on top of this to avoid moving you into full-blown diabetes.
And even without diabetes or pre-diabetes, high sugar levels can lead to the trifecta of other health issues: obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. None of which you want.
There is also a condition known as metabolic syndrome. And while there isn’t a direct link between this condition and diabetes, they sure share a lot of similarities, including high blood sugar levels. Researchers believe that insulin resistance—also a calling card of diabetes—may be a cause of metabolic syndrome, according to this post.
Is Low Blood Sugar Problematic?
Low blood sugar levels, too, can cause serious reactions. Known as hypoglycemia, low blood sugar means your cells aren’t getting the required energy from glucose that your body needs to function. This may result in your brain and heart working improperly. Those with diabetes are subject to low blood sugar levels with too much insulin or too much oral medication used to treat diabetes.
But you don’t have to have diabetes to experience what goes along with low blood sugar, including symptoms like headache, hunger, exhaustion, the sweats, the shakes and just a feeling of weakness. Low sugar can be serious, and can lead to fainting, seizures and at the extreme, coma.
What’s a Normal Blood Sugar Level?
Your healthy blood sugar numbers will be dependent on several factors such as age, health issues, lifestyle factors, and maybe even your sex. There are different ways to test your blood glucose levels, so first, some definitions that will correlate to the numbers to be discussed.
- Fasting glucose test—this blood sample test evaluates your current glucose level after fasting for at least 8 hours.
- Non-fasting glucose test—like the fasting glucose test, this blood sample test provides a specific glimpse of your glucose levels, at a single point in time. One key difference between the two tests is that the non-fasting glucose test shows how your body manages glucose in reaction to what you’ve eaten prior to the test, the assumption being that your numbers will be higher after you’ve eaten than when you’ve fasted.
- A1c test—this is also known as a hemoglobin A1c or HbA1c and it measures the amount of glucose in your blood; however, there is an important distinction between this test and glucose tests. Rather than being a “snapshot test” like the fasting and non-fasting glucose tests, with an A1c test the measurement is based on your average blood sugar levels over the past three months, so there’s no point in fasting.
So, now let’s look at the numbers.
The chart below breaks the numbers down into a few categories. For example, you’ll see that the age groups are categorized as children/adolescents, adults and older adults. And you’ll also see that the targeted numbers allow for a greater range for older adults for those with type 2 diabetes.
According to this article, “the chart below uses insight from studies including those conducted by the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and John Hopkins Medicine to illustrate the typically recommended blood sugar levels by age.”
INFOGRAPHIC: Blood Sugar Levels by Age
For example, in referencing the fasting glucose range, the target range for older adults is between 80-150mg/dL (versus up to 130mg/dL for other age categories), and up to 170mg/dL for those older adults with type 2 diabetes. The greater allowance for higher targets indicates that as we age, insulin sensitivity gradually decreases through no fault of our own. This is important because low insulin sensitivity may result in chronically high blood sugar levels.
As for the HbA1c numbers, the goal for properly managing your diabetes is to reduce this number to less than 6.5%, which would recategorize you as in prediabetes rather diabetes. This does not change with age.
However, the target for those with type 2 diabetes sets a goal of less than or equal to 7% for children, adolescents and adults, and a higher range of less than or equal to 7.5-8% for those older adults with diabetes.
Allowing for a higher target range for older adults—both in the glucose testing and HbA1c tests—is simply a means of recognizing the fact that as we age, our body manages glucose levels less effectively. Don’t take these higher-ranged targets for older adults as a license to ignore your rising blood sugar numbers.
Talk with your doctor about your individual circumstances and target goals for blood sugar.
There are other reasons, too, why your blood sugar may be out of whack. Here are five of them:
- You’re consuming too many added sugars, simple carbs and processed foods. The goal is not to eliminate these foods, because your body needs some sugars and also carbohydrates. The goal is moderation and selecting foods that will help your body, like fruits and complex carbs. As for processed food, sure, once in a while, but check the labels to learn more about the amount of added sugar, simple carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and salt.
- You’re not managing your stress properly. Both physical and emotional stress, especially at a prolonged level, release hormones that increase your blood sugar. Physical activity may counter some of that stress.
- Speaking of physical activity, just say “yes.” Not only will it help relieve stress, but it is a key component of managing your weight. And, you already know this, being overweight or obese is not healthy for managing your blood sugar.
- Don’t just “watch” your weight. Losing even 5 to 7 percent of your body weight can help bring your blood sugar down, especially if you’re overweight or obese.
- Aim for between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. Sleeping less than seven hours a night makes elevated HbA1c blood levels more likely.
Bottom line: Regardless of age, regularly testing your blood sugar levels can help you stay on top of those numbers. Unhealthy blood sugar levels can do serious damage to your health. Keeping those numbers in a healthy range will go a long way toward feeling better—and actually being healthier at every age.