The study of Medicare beneficiaries found 2.7 percent of a group of 1.5 million enrollees in the government-funded insurance program for the elderly were diagnosed with diabetes in 2003, compared to 2.2 percent diagnosed in 1994.
Overall, one-quarter of those 65 or older had type-2 diabetes in 2003, up from 15 percent in 1994, the report said. The 1.5 million people studied represented a group of 5 percent of Medicare enrollees whose health is being tracked by the program.
"The prevalence of diabetes mellitus is increasing, in part because of population aging, but also in younger persons," Frank Sloan of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, and colleagues wrote in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Making matters worse, nine out of 10 of those diagnosed with diabetes in 1994 and 1999 developed some other ailment within six years of diagnosis, against seven out of 10 of elderly without diabetes who were studied for comparison purposes.
Diabetes damages blood circulation and is known to increase the risks of heart disease, blindness and skin ulcers, among other ailments.
"What we're concerned about is the rate of complications," Sloan said in a telephone interview.
"Our overall conclusion is they're not getting any better" over time, he said, citing increasing cases of kidney function deterioration and lower extremity problems, which can result in foot amputations.
"It shouldn't be happening if you're monitoring your blood pressure, your cholesterol, keeping your blood glucose in line, getting your eyes checked, getting your feet checked, so the complications can be caught and monitored," he said.
Rates of congestive heart failure, heart attack and stroke remained fairly stable at about three out of 10 people diagnosed with diabetes in 1994, 1999, and 2003.
Roughly one-third of diabetics diagnosed in 1994 and 1999 died within six years, compared to one-fourth of non-diabetics. For those surviving with the disease, the accumulation of other ailments places heavy burdens on the health care system, the report said.
"The message is how can we encourage people to adhere to recommended care and reduce these complications," Sloan said. "It's not an issue of uninsured people. (The elderly) frequently go to the doctor but we're not making inroads in terms of postponing these complications the way we should be."