Diabetes and Life Expectancy: Tips to Help You Beat the Odds

People with diabetes are more likely to die from cardiovascular disease but experts say it's possible to make changes and improve your outlook. Here are 5 steps you can take now.


small dog wearing a pink birthday hatNew study finds life expectancy significantly shorter for people who live with diabetes. Take steps now to safeguard your heart and beat the odds of dying from cardiovascular disease. (Photo: Unsplash, Delaney Dawson)

A recent study published in The Lancet in August 2018 put forth some distressing news for people whho live with diabetes and those that love them.

Researchers found that being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes before age 10 can shorten your lifespan—an average of 16 years shorter compared to people without diabetes and 10 years shorter for those diagnosed at an older age. This news may have you worried you’re facing steep odds when it comes to staying healthy.

Got Diabetes? Heart-Related Issues More Likely

It’s a fact that individuals who have diabetes are twice as likely to develop and die from cardiovascular disease such as heart disease, heart failure, heart attack and stroke. And it’s also true that for adults at age 60, having type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease shortens their life expectancy by around 12 years.1

Yet although you can’t change certain facts—like your age at the time of your diabetes diagnosis—there are plenty of modifiable risk factors that you can do something about, experts say. And if you start taking care of yourself now, you can look forward to good health in your future.

Study Results

In the study that was published in The Lancet, researchers focused on a group of more than 27,000 people aged 18 and older in the Swedish National Diabetes Register who’d been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and compared them with more than 135,000 individuals who did not have diabetes.

Through medical records, the researchers followed the group for at least a decade. They found that individuals who were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes before age 10 were four times more likely than their counterparts without diabetes to die of any cause during the follow-up period, and four times as likely as their diabetes-free counterparts to die of cardiovascular disease. Individuals diagnosed between the ages of 26 and 30 had triple the risk of early death from heart disease or other causes, according to the study.2

While The Lancet study found an association, it did not prove cause and effect. It did, however, urge people with type 1 diabetes to take good care of their hearts. “Greater focus on cardioprotection might be warranted in people with early-onset type 1 diabetes,” the study authors wrote.

Make Heart Health a Priority

If you have diabetes, it will serve you to focus on your heart. “With the tools we have today, it is possible to manage your type 1 and type 2 diabetes in a relatively straightforward fashion and to reduce the risk for various problems, especially cardiovascular problems,” says Gerald Bernstein, MD, program coordinator at the Friedman Diabetes Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Today people with diabetes have the opportunity to reduce their cardiovascular risks and still lead a normal life.”

Dr. Betul Hatipoglu, MD, an endocrinologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says that studies like the one in The Lancet must be taken seriously. “Cardiovascular disease is a big deal in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes,” she says. “One explanation for why people with diabetes are at risk for heart disease is because glucose can be toxic in the body. Sugar actually changes the cholesterol, making it more dense and more prone to result in hardening of vessels."

However, she says, there are a number of things you can do to keep your blood sugar in check and keep healthy.

5 Steps to Take Now for Better Heart Health

#1. Create a plan of action for a healthier lifestyle

It’s key that your plan for eating and exercise is one that you can work with. “Your personal plan should be comprehensive, multifaceted, and one you know you can execute,” says Charles Katzenberg, MD, who specializes in heart disease prevention at the University of Arizona Sarver Heart Center. “We recommend a whole-food, plant-based diet.”

He advises steering clear of the SAD (Standard American Diet) and eating a “plant-strong” diet.  A SAD diet includes meat, dairy, eggs, processed grains, fast food and fried food, and foods that are calorie dense and high in added sugar. Instead, aim for eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, home-cooked meals, nuts and seeds and foods that are high in fiber and low in added sugar and salt. 

And resolve to move everyday. Dr. Katzenberg recommends that you get four to six hours per week of aerobic exercise, and that you lift weight once or twice a week.  “Incorporate aerobic exercise, strength training, flexibility, balance and coordination into your exercise routine,” he says. “The bottom line is to stay active.”

#2. Pay attention to blood pressure

“Hypertension is a particular problem for people with diabetes,” says Gerald Bernstein, MD, program coordinator at the Friedman Diabetes Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “It can cause abnormalities in the lining of the blood vessels.” 

If you struggle to maintain normal blood pressure, be aware that it can be managed with medication, says David Friedman, MD, Director of Heart Failure Services at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream Hospital in Valley Stream, NY. “Certain blood pressure pills have been shown to help protect against so-called microvascular complications such as eye and kidney damage with medications in the ACE inhibitor/ARB category,” he says. (That class of medications can also serve a dual purpose to treat certain heart failure patients as well, Dr. Friedman says).

#3. Practice good dental hygiene

An infection of the gums can actually elevate your blood sugar, explains Dr. Bernstein. “If your teeth are not healthy, this can contribute to cardiovascular risk,” he says. “When you have little micro abscesses in the gums, this can cause inflammation.”

#4. Pursue peacefulness

Try to spend 15 to 30 minutes a day removing yourself from life’s stressors, suggests Dr. Katzenberg. This can include meditating, reading, t’ai chi, yoga, music and biofeedback. Turn off the TV, he advises, and spend some quality time alone.

#5. Put technology to work for you

The best way to beat the odds of a shortened lifespan is to maintain tight blood sugar control, says Prakash Deedwania, MD, FACC, FAHA, FESC, a professor at the University of California San Francisco. “When your glucose is high, your body can turn this excess sugar into triglycerides,” he says. “And when these go up, there can be abnormalities. Inflammation can occur.”

If you have type 1, an insulin pump can help with blood sugar control, he says, so if you don’t already have one, consider asking your health care provider if it could be right for you.

A closed loop system, which has an insulin pump and a blood glucose sensor, and the capability to link the data and decide how much insulin you need, is beginning to be available. “A number of different systems are evolving, but right now it’s way too expensive for everyone to have it,” Dr. Bernstein says.

In one study of adults with type 1 diabetes who used the Omnipod hybrid closed-loop system (the HorizonTM Automated Glucose Control System), the participants experienced significantly less hypoglycemia, more time in the target glucose range, and better overnight glycemic control compared to their usual care, according to the study, “Safety and Performance of the Omnipod Hybrid Closed-Loop System in Adults with Type 1 Diabetes over Five Days Under Free-Living Conditions.”3

All in all, the news about survival rates for those who were diagnosed young with type 1 is not necessarily grim. “With the medical support we have today, and the ability to look ahead for potential problems, we can prevent an enormous number of complications and reduce the difference in survival age between those who have diabetes and those who don’t,” Dr. Bernstein says.

Take steps now to protect your heart. “Lifestyle is more powerful than medications,” Dr. Katzenberg says. “And prevention is more effective than intervention.”

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