Management of type 2 diabetes mellitus in the elderly: special considerations

Drugs Aging. 2001;18(1):31-44. doi: 10.2165/00002512-200118010-00003.


The principles of managing type 2 diabetes mellitus in the elderly are no different from those in younger patients, but the priorities and therapeutic strategies need to be cautiously individualised. The objectives of treatment are to improve glycaemic control in a stepwise approach that involves nonpharmacological methods including diet and exercise, and pharmacological therapy including mixtures of oral antihyperglycaemic agents alone or in combination with insulin. Although the goals of treatment may be the same for elderly and younger patients, certain aspects of type 2 diabetes in the elderly require special consideration. Treatment decisions are influenced by age and life expectancy, comorbid conditions and severity of the vascular complications. Adherence to dietary therapy, physical activity, and medication regimens may be compromised by comorbid conditions and psychosocial limitations. Drug-induced hypoglycaemia has been the main consideration and the most serious potential complication. In addition, the long term macrovascular and microvascular complications of type 2 diabetes are a source of significant morbidity and mortality. Indeed, vascular and neuropathic complications are already present at the time of diagnosis in a significant number of patients, and the impact of improved diabetes control depends on the age and life expectancy of the patient. Age-related changes in pharmacokinetics and the potential for adverse effects and drug interactions should also be considered when choosing appropriate pharmacological therapy. In general, a conservative and stepwise approach to the treatment of the elderly patient with type 2 diabetes is suggested; treatment may be initiated with monotherapy, followed by early intervention with a combination of oral agents including a sulphonylurea as a foundation insulin secretagogue in addition to a supplemental insulin sensitiser. Insulin therapy is eventually required if significant hyperglycaemia [glycosylated haemoglobin (HbA1c) >8%] persists despite oral combination therapy. Combination therapy with evening insulin and a long-acting sulphonylurea such as glimepiride is an effective strategy to improve hyperglycaemia in the elderly patient with type 2 diabetes in whom polypharmacy with oral agents is unsuccessful. In addition, such a regimen is simple to follow for the patient who may not be able to adhere to a more complicated insulin regimen. Hyperglycaemia in the elderly can be managed well with practical intervention and a straightforward treatment plan to enhance compliance. Optimal glycaemic control should be possible for every patient if treatment is individualised; however, strict glycaemic control may not be achievable in all patients or even desirable in many elderly patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2* / complications
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2* / drug therapy
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2* / physiopathology
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Geriatrics*
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Insulin / therapeutic use
  • Sulfonylurea Compounds / therapeutic use


  • Hypoglycemic Agents
  • Insulin
  • Sulfonylurea Compounds