Diabetes among seniors is part of a "silent global tsunami" but a national strategy developed in Canada a decade ago has never been implemented, says a Calgary doctor working to raise awareness about the chronic disease.

Dr. David C.W. Lau is urging the federal government to take action, adding one in five people aged 65 and over is being diagnosed with diabetes compared to one in 10 cases among younger adults.

"We don't have specific statistics in Canada," Lau said, adding diabetes rates are identified through "unreliable" physicians' billing data.

"We really don't have a proper surveillance program or a tracking system to diagnose people and we don't have a registry of people with diabetes," said Lau, who teaches medicine at the University of Calgary.

Worst in Maritimes

Dr. David C.W. Lau

Dr. David C.W. Lau teaches medicine at the University of Calgary and is editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Diabetes. (University of Calgary)

However, he said the available statistics show that the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes are among residents in the Maritime provinces while the lowest are in British Columbia, primarily due to differences in obesity rates.

China, India and the United States are poised to have the biggest increase in the number of adults with diabetes, he said, attributing the hike in developing countries to sedentary lifestyles as more people move to urban areas and eat western-style fast food.

"One of my new scientist colleagues who went back to China said that at a gala dinner he was absolutely appalled to find that every single physician and researcher was comparing the pills that they were taking. They all had diabetes."

'Triple whammies'

Lau, editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Diabetes, said in an editorial in the current issue that better diagnosis and management of the disease is needed to curtail spiralling health-care costs from complications such as kidney failure and blindness.

'I got a dog that needs to go for a walk and that still doesn't work' - John Ashdown, 72, diagnosed with diabetes

"The Public Health Agency of Canada has been battling with these issues for a long time," he said in an interview, adding that double the diabetes rate among seniors compared to adults aged 20 and up in an aging population is a "crisis."

"People with diabetes are more likely to develop dementia, and diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke," he said.

"Among the folks who are in the senior, elderly age group, these are double whammies, if not triple whammies, causing problems that we really need to be focusing on."

'Bacon, eggs and butter'

The Public Health Agency of Canada said it is addressing diabetes.

Diabetes blood glucose test

The highest rates of Type 2 diabetes are among residents in the Maritime provinces while the lowest are in B.C., primarily due to differences in obesity rates. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

The Canadian Diabetes Strategy tracks trends and risk factors for all age groups and the agency has developed a questionnaire to help people identify their risk of having the disease, it said in a statement.

Lau said the message for people to lose just one to three per cent of their body weight to reduce the risk of diabetes by nearly 60 per cent is not being heeded.

Many of the future doctors he teaches have poor lifestyles themselves, "so that is frightening" for professionals who will need to counsel patients, Lau said.

John Ashdown, 72, said he was diagnosed with diabetes 10 years ago but that he loves "bacon, eggs and butter" too much to change his eating habits and he can't be bothered to exercise despite the high cost of insulin.

"I don't feel sick enough, and I'm living with it. I have to admit my feet are getting too sore to walk too far," said the New Westminster, B.C., resident who has ignored his doctor's advice to lose weight and get moving.

"I got a dog that needs to go for a walk and that still doesn't work."

Hodgepodge plans

Serge Corbeil, who advocates the federal government on behalf of the Canadian Diabetes Association's chapters in British Columbia and Alberta, said the lack of a national strategy means each province has its own approach to dealing with diabetes.

He said that days before the federal election last October, the former Conservative government announced the renewal of a diabetes prevention and management program for aboriginals, identified as one of the top priorities by the association.

Though some parts of the 2006 national diabetes plan have been addressed, subsidies for medication and other treatment remain a hodgepodge mix across the country, Corbeil said.

A 2015 report by the association called for access to specialized footwear for diabetes patients who have lost circulation in their feet and often end up with ulcers and infections, leading to amputation.

Health ministers from across the country are scheduled to meet in Vancouver for two days starting Jan. 20, and Corbeil said he is hoping a national diabetes plan that includes food labelling will be high on the agenda.