How to Manage Type 1 Diabetes As You Age

Seniors share how optimism, family support and lifestyle management have helped them live with diabetes.

Wallace Gordon, 77, has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 62 years.

Wallace Gordon, 77, has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 62 years.

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Interestingly, King says he has rarely seen people with Type 1 diabetes have Alzheimer's disease, and the hair of many women doesn't turn gray until they're 70 or 80 years old. He has noted physicalexercise plays a large role in life expectancy. About half the participants who didn't develop serious complications did not exercise careful control over their diabetes throughout their lives, though this may be attributable to nascent care and the type of insulin available, King says. The researchers are trying to find out what sets some participants apart.

[See How to Find a 'Best' Hospital for Diabetes.]

For instance, King is able to pick out seniors with Type 1 diabetes from a crowd just based on their positive demeanor, he says.

Saalfeld attributes her optimism as the No. 1 reason she has been able to remain healthy for so long. Students who had Type 1 diabetes approached her when she worked at the career center to ask about her experiences with the disease. She listened to them and encouraged them by sharing how she had managed her diabetes. "I didn't feel sorry for them," she says. "There's no reason to. You can live with diabetes."

Saalfeld has created a quilt to chronicle her diabetic history.

King says the most successful patients have been open to using new technology. Gordon injected himself with a single shot of insulin using a syringe for 25 years, then gradually moved to four shots a day. He now uses a pump. "I'm particularly fond of my pump's useful calculating and recording," he says. "The technology is coming closer and closer to mimicking the function of the normal human body."

He has aimed for regularity in eating and exercise, and recommends other people with diabetes do the same. He also recommends people who have diabetes to not become obsessed with every little variance that develops in the course of their lives, he says.

[See Best Diabetes Diets.]

Gordon spent most of his career working in the journalism industry, which was stressful given its late hours and intense work. Stress has an effect on a person's blood sugar, which can change personality, so Gordon needed to continuously monitor his carbohydrate intake and insulin. He only felt restricted by diabetes once, during college at the University of Pennsylvania. A staff member at the school's medical center told him he shouldn't be on the crew team, even though the coach thought he showed significant promise. "They said they didn't want any diabetics dropping in the Schuylkill River," he recalls.

Gordon now lives in a retirement community with his wife in Lancaster, Pa. "She is a very conscientious and caring wife, which is a great component for any diabetic," he says. "They can read you. They can sense how you're functioning. They can see how you look."

Saalfeld has received the same support and encouragement from her husband, Fred, of 55 years. When she was a child, her parents immediately accepted the fact that she had diabetes, she said, and she was never ostracized at school, but instead received encouragement.

Her family simply wouldn't eat any food she couldn't eat, never complaining or feeling sorry for her. Her aunt even invented a sugar-free ice cream. "Everybody loved it!" she says proudly.

Saalfeld carefully reads food labels to help her make any necessary substitutions. "You have to eat correctly, you have to check your blood sugar, you have to exercise, with no exception," she says. "I have never really gone off my diet and never will."

King says careful patients like her who keep track of their everyday activity and glucose level can successfully lead normal lives. He encourages patients to learn everything they can about their condition and to educate each other and their physicians about their bodies, since everyone is different.

Saalfeld still uses syringes four times a day and monitors her blood sugar herself. She doesn't take much insulin because she can tell how much her body needs by her physical reactions and how she is feeling, she says. She only goes to the doctor when she has a problem.