Insider Secrets to a Long, Healthy Life With Diabetes

Who better to provide advice than those who’ve lived with diabetes for years, sometimes decades? Here’s what they learned along the way.

Julie Vecchione DeSimone

Ken Ellis, 7 years old, was rehearsing for the 1960 Christmas pageant in Canon City, CO, when his parents noticed his frequent bathroom visits were holding up the show. He ended up in the hospital for four days.

Over the past 50 years, Ellis has become an expert in the management of his disease. He was recently awarded a “50-Year Medal” from the Joslin Diabetes Center, a renowned diabetes research and clinical care organization affiliated with Harvard Medical School. The center bestows the honor on those who have lived with insulin-dependent diabetes for 50 or more years. And a study of hundreds of medalists found they’re remarkably hardy: 43% remained free of diabetic retinopathy, 39% were free of nerve damage, 52% free of cardiovascular disease and 87% free of kidney disease.

What keeps the medalists so healthy? “Most are proactive and have a good lifestyle,” says George L. King, MD, chief scientific officer at Joslin and senior author of the study. Furthermore, their methods can work for anyone with diabetes—type 1 or 2. And that compelled us to go straight to the source—a few of the medalists themselves—for the inside scoop.

Cultivate positive relationships
The medalists tend to have very good networking in place,” says Dr. King. Take Carole Barnhard, of Tinton Falls, NJ, who’s had a strong support system since she was diagnosed at age 16. “My father had a very positive attitude; he helped me learn about the disease and how to navigate doctor visits and meds,” she says. “After I was married, my husband took on that role and now my son checks on me. I also have a close relationship with my endocrinologist.”
Why it works:
Close ties to family, friends, neighbors and colleagues make you feel safe and secure, and that’s linked to a longer life, according to a Brigham Young University analysis of studies encompassing more than 300,000 people.

Remember your goal

San Diego resident Bob Krause, the longest-living American with type 1 diabetes, received a Joslin “85-Year Medal.” Diagnosed in 1926 at age 5, Bob’s success can be attributed to his strong character and willpower. “I’m a stubborn old man. I refuse to give up,” says Bob. “Bob tests his blood up to a dozen times a day and brings in updated charts every visit,” says his physician, Patricia Wu, MD, endocrinologist at Kaiser Permanente, San Diego.
Why it works:
Monitoring blood sugar is a good way to manage diabetes, says the American Diabetes Association. By closely tracking your data, you’ll see when you are experiencing swings in your blood sugar—and that can help avoid complications.
Move it
“Most of the medalists exercise regularly,” notes Dr. King. At 76, Carole rides a stationary bike at the gym three days a week. Ken wears a pedometer and tries to get in 10,000 steps a day. “My walks are not intense; I just try to walk at a decent pace.”Why it works: “Exercise is the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth,” says Medha Munshi, MD, director of Joslin’s Geriatric Diabetes Clinic. Not only does it improve general health, it aids in managing blood glucose levels.

Keep up-to-date

“Our medalists are always looking for new treatments,” says Dr. King. “Sixty percent are on the insulin pump, versus only 15% to 20% of people who require insulin.”
Why it works:
Advances in diabetes-management technologies, such as insulin pumps and glucose meters, can help diabetes management. Being open to new options can be very important to success.

April 2013