Less than a hundred years ago, being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes was practically a death sentence. Most people lived, on average, a few months, with a few lucky individuals surviving for over a year. Even just a few decades ago, someone diagnosed with T1D could expect to live a limited life that would end with a host of medical problems and an early decline.
Today, type 1 diabetics face a brighter outlook. Significant improvements in technology and diabetes treatment means diabetics can thrive for decades with the right care.
But despite better blood sugar control provided by things like CGMs, advanced pump technology, and a better understanding of the disease, diabetics still have a shorter life expectancy than the average person.
Average Life Expectancy of a Type 1 Diabetic
According to a study published in JAMA in 2015, the average lifespan of a male with type 1 diabetes is about 66 years, 11 years less than the average male. Women with T1D appear to be impacted even more by the disease and on average only live to 68, about 13 years less than average.
For people diagnosed with the disease before the age of 10, life expectancy drops even lower to 16 years less than the average person, according to a study published in The Lancet in 2018. While those diagnosed at an older age only see a 10-year drop in life expectancy on average.
While these numbers are still a huge improvement over the “a few months to live” outlook of the early 1900s, for most diabetics, myself included, these numbers are disheartening. However, a deeper look at these kinds of studies does seem to pave a way to a future with a lower chance of premature death for diabetics.
What Affects Life Expectancy When Living with T1D?
Cardiovascular complications are the cause for the majority of premature deaths in people with diabetes.
Heart disease affected about a third of all diabetics in the JAMA study. While The Lancet study found that those diagnosed at a young age had a 30 times greater chance of serious cardiac outcomes such as heart attack.
While heart-related issues were by far the largest factor in mortality among older diabetics, those under 50 were more likely to suffer early death from glucose management-related complications. These complications are the result of extremes in low and high blood sugars and include coma, ketoacidosis, and nerve and vascular damage.
How to Avoid T1D Complications and Live Longer
One thing we do know from the results of these types of studies is that life expectancy improves dramatically with the degree of care a diabetic receives.
Patients who receive intensive diabetes care and are taught how to use this type of care to control their own blood sugars cut their mortality rate by a third.
For every 10% reduction in A1C, there is a 44% reduction in the overall risk of death.
To beat the odds and achieve a normal lifespan, diabetics need to take many aspects of their health into their own hands.
Use the latest technology
It’s also important to consider that these studies relied on patients who were diagnosed before many of the modern diabetes treatments were available.
Those of us who were recently diagnosed or have been lucky enough to upgrade our treatment to include CGMs and pumps are likely already on track to a longer, healthier life than many of those included in these studies.
Of course, high-tech gear isn’t going to help you achieve better health all on its own.
Love Your Heart
Cardiovascular health should be a top priority for anyone with diabetes. High blood sugars cause blood vessels to harden and raise blood pressure. This, in turn, causes damage to the heart and weakens the muscle.
While most diabetics are used to eating to control their blood sugar, not enough people eat with the intention of keeping their heart-healthy.
A diet high in healthy fats and antioxidants is great for keeping your heart strong, but don’t forget the importance of eating to keep your blood pressure low. Whole grains and nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables can fight high blood pressure and cholesterol to help avoid heart disease in the future.
While all diabetics think in terms of blood sugars, exercise is also key to heart health.
Sustained, increased heart rate through cardio-based activities strengthens the heart muscle. Any exercise will help you stay lean, and less mass means your heart doesn’t have to work as hard.
Put Your Diabetes Management First
Many diabetics rely on their doctors to manage their illness. While your doctor should always be the first person you consult with before making changes to your treatment plan, it’s important to remember that you are just one of the hundreds of patients they have to think about. You, on the other hand, are the only patient you need to think about.
Don’t wait until your next appointment to talk to your doctor if you’re seeing disturbing trends in your blood sugars.
The sooner you can get your sugars back in range, the less damage they can do. Talk to your endocrinologist about how you can make changes to your own settings between visits. If you have a CGM, then your doctor can likely view your numbers remotely and advise through an email or phone call.
Educating yourself on the constantly evolving field of diabetes management can be just as useful as communicating with your doctor. This may mean reading new research articles, joining communities like Insulin Nation, or finding local diabetes groups to meet with.
Don’t Become a Statistic
In the end, things like average lifespan and the rate of heart disease aren’t the numbers a diabetic should be worried about.
Blood sugar, A1C, and blood pressure are the numbers you should be obsessing about.
By taking control of these numbers, you take control of your health, and in turn, greatly reduce the odds of diabetes cutting your life short.