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Diabetes and Life Expectancy: Ending Myths and Getting Started on Your Best Life Yet
Diabetes doesn’t have to mean early death. In fact, with proper management, a diagnosis could actually lead to a longer and healthier life. Here’s why.
By Jamie Ludwig
Medically Reviewed by Kacy Church, MD
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For far too long, diabetes has been associated with shorter-than-average life spans and a lower quality of life for those people with the condition. But as it turns out, when diabetes is managed well, this is often not the case. With the proper tools, attitude, and support system, anyone with diabetes can change the course of their health.
Why Having Diabetes Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You’ll Die Sooner
It’s true that, when you consider heart-related cardiovascular complications, men and women with diabetes tend to have higher rates of early death than their peers without the disease, according to research. But it’s also true that no two people with diabetes are the same, and how a person manages his or her blood sugar is key when considering how the disease might affect your life span.
“Having diabetes won’t necessarily change someone's life expectancy — it's how diabetes progresses. For every individual, diabetes is going to progress differently,” says Joanne Rinker, RD, CDE, director of practice and content development at the American Association of Diabetes Educators. “If it progresses at an extremely slow rate, because diabetes is so individualized, it might be so slow that it does not impact their life expectancy whatsoever.”
Instead of thinking only about how diabetes will impact your life span, experts suggest that people with the condition should take a broader look at their overall health. “Diabetes is not a singular disease that one should focus on. Focus on how you can improve the different risk factors that can impact the functioning of the heart and other organs,” says Medha Munshi, MD, director of geriatric diabetes programs at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. “It's important to think, ‘What are the factors that would impact my length of life?’”
Some factors, such as genes, can’t be changed, but modifying diet, exercise, and smoking habits can have positive health effects when it comes to managing diabetes, and have been associated with an increase of life span, according to a study published in June 2019 in the journalDiabetic Medicine.
How a Diabetes Diagnosis May Actually Improve Life Quality
Many people live with diabetes for years before being diagnosed, but once they are, they can approach the condition head on. As a result of their efforts, many people may actually find their quality of life is better than it was before diagnosis.
“Once they have the diagnosis and take action — whether that action is just behavioral change because they didn't have diabetes for long, or behavioral changes combined with a medication regimen — they feel that they have a much higher quality of life after they were diagnosed,” says Rinker.
The Importance of Preventing Diabetes Progression and Heart Disease
“What's important to remember, in the absence of cardiovascular disease, is life expectancy is going to depend on the progression of diabetes,” Rinker says. This means it’s important to eat well, exercise, and take medicine if recommended by your doctor.
Equally crucial, be sure to prevent or manage any additional conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or chronic inflammation. When a person is diagnosed with diabetes, their healthcare provider will require them to be examined for heart disease and take care to reduce their risk of developing it in the future. To that end, a diabetes diagnosis can be the first step to managing or reversing more life-threatening conditions, potentially leading to a longer life.
“To someone who is depressed about the diagnosis of diabetes, I'll say, ‘This disease is going to make you do things you should be doing anyway. You should be eating well and exercising anyway.’ It might actually prolong their lives because they’ll be doing things they wouldn't have done before the diagnosis,” Dr. Munshi says.
For some people, these measures can have incredible benefits: A report published in September 2019 in theBritish Medical Journalsuggested maintaining a healthy weight and lowering blood glucose levels may even help reverse type 2 diabetes.
How Advocating for Your Health Can Help Extend Your Life With Diabetes
As always, the most important step a person living with diabetes can take to improve the quality of their life — and potentially extend it — is to speak up for themselves to get the quality of social and medical support they need. “Ask your provider questions, request the ability to access a diabetes educator, and make an effort to be as proactive as possible,” Rinker says.
Self-advocacy shouldn’t stop at the doctor’s office door, though; it’s important to speak with family members and friends so that they understand how to lend a hand, whether it’s recognizing signs of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), or knowing which snacks to stock up on before the next holiday get-together. A review published in November 2013 in the journalDiabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesitysuggested that support from friends and family can help you adhere to your diabetes management plan.
Follow these steps to help manage diabetes and potentially lengthen your life:
- Know that a diagnosis is not a death sentence.
- Take steps to prevent progression and complications. “Everything about diabetes is about prevention. Once you are diagnosed with diabetes, there's not a lot one can do to reverse it, but now we have a lot of tools to prevent complications. Making sure your blood sugars are well controlled is one part of it. But then there are also associated conditions that are important to consider, like high blood pressure, like high cholesterol,” says Munshi.
- Work with a nutritionist or doctor to create an individualized eating plan, and then follow it.
- Start a fitness routine that fits your lifestyle and activity level. Iif you are not currently active, get permission from your doctor first.
- Take medication if recommended.
- Be consistent with your diabetes management.
- Be patient. “Instead of getting overwhelmed, have a plan to have a healthy lifestyle, that perhaps improves the risks even more,” says Munshi.
- Get friends and family involved.
- Speak up! Ask questions, and tell your doctor if you notice any changes in your health.
Aging With Diabetes: Why the Outlook Is Bright
Due to a constant stream of new research and medical advances, people with diabetes have good reason to be optimistic about the future. “Every day we're finding new ways to improve quality of life, and better ways to manage diabetes, better medicines, and better care. Certainly, controlling high blood pressure improves it over time,” says Munshi.
For example, new research is pointing to inflammation as a cause of type 2 diabetes, and multiple clinical studies are underway to explore medication to reduce the incidence of the condition. Additionally, breakthroughs are being made in drugs, such as ruboxistaurin (RBX), which could reduce the likelihood of complications associated with diabetes, such as loss of eyesight.
Also, don’t underestimate your own control in your future with diabetes. “Think of the factors you can modify [that] improve not only your life expectancy but your quality of life,” Munshi says.
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