Hypoglycaemia in elderly patients with diabetes mellitus: causes and strategies for prevention

Drugs Aging. 2004;21(8):511-30. doi: 10.2165/00002512-200421080-00003.


Achieving target glycaemic goals while avoiding hypoglycaemia is a major challenge in the management of elderly patients with diabetes mellitus. Repeated episodes of hypoglycaemia may cause extreme emotional distress in such patients, even when the episodes are relatively mild. Moreover, evidence is mounting that hypoglycaemia among elderly patients is a very real and costly health concern. The strongest predictors of severe hypoglycaemia in the elderly are advanced age, recent hospitalisation and polypharmacy. Education is the key to preventing recurrent or severe hypoglycaemia. As such, there should be close coordination of care between the patient, physician and all other healthcare providers in identifying the cause of hypoglycaemia in elderly patients, and appropriate steps should be taken to prevent further episodes. Prevention of hypoglycaemia has the potential to improve psychosocial aspects of elderly health, including enhanced quality of life, boosted confidence, improved compliance with antidiabetic regimens and avoidance of long-term complications. Since the elderly population represents a unique group, it is imperative to focus on the aetiologies that are exclusive to this group. Advanced age itself is a risk factor for hypoglycaemia, and elderly patients with comorbidities are at increased risk when they are hospitalised. Elderly patients with diabetes often have compromised renal function, which intereferes with drug elimination and thus predisposes them to prolonged life-threatening hypoglycaemia. In addition, patients on five or more prescription medications are prone to drug-associated hypoglycaemia. Although sulfonylurea-associated hypoglycaemia is common, drugs such as ACE inhibitors and nonselective beta-adrenoceptor antagonists can also predispose patients to hypoglycaemia. Greater attention should be paid to the avoidance of hypgolycaemia in nursing home residents. Recurrent hypoglycaemia in elderly patients is not only detrimental to achieving good glycaemic control, it is also a substantial economic burden. Once the causes of hypoglycaemia have been identified, it is crucial to formulate and institute a prevention plan. Firstly, global evaluation of the patient should be carried out to identify possible predisposing risk factors. Secondly, target glycaemic goals should be tailored to each patient. Thirdly, selection of antidiabetic agents should be judicious, then patients and family should be educated to recognise and treat hypoglycaemia. Finally, coordinated care should be provided to identify, treat and prevent hypoglycaemia.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / adverse effects
  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Aged
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors / adverse effects
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Diabetes Complications
  • Diabetes Mellitus / drug therapy*
  • Diabetes Mellitus / metabolism
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemia / chemically induced*
  • Hypoglycemia / epidemiology
  • Hypoglycemia / prevention & control*
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / adverse effects
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Polypharmacy
  • Risk Factors


  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Hypoglycemic Agents
  • Glucose