Growing Into Old Age With Type 1 Diabetes

Mary Kate Cary Health Guide
  • A recent edition of the Sunday New York Times had a front-page article on the Cleveland Brothers (“Diabetic Brothers Beat Odds With Grit and Luck”), who are 85 and 90 years old and were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as children. They are being studied by researchers as part of a group of diabetes survivors who have lived with the disease for more than 50 years.

    Gerald Cleveland is the oldest living childhood diabetic at 90 years old, and no one has survived with the disease as long as Robert has, who has had it for 81 years. (Gerald was diagnosed at 16, and Robert at five.)
    The article is a little difficult to read because of everything these two have been through – they have both had toes amputated; one went into a coma for low blood sugar; and one of them has a rare condition common in people with diabetes that causes his hands to curl into fists. But it’s also very uplifting.
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    These two men are very healthy, and not just healthy for people with diabetes. They test their blood seven to eight times a day, avoid desserts and are both thin. They prove that with hard work, regular exercise and a good diet, you can avoid the worst of diabetes’ complications. Part of it is genetics, but a lot of it is discipline. They keep meticulous records of their doses and blood sugar readings. Gerald Cleveland considers himself compulsive reader of food ingredient labels, and he’s appalled at the ingredients in many packaged foods and the ignorance of many people, including those with diabetes, who purchase them. Both men regularly exercise, even at their age, biking and going to exercise classes. (I liked that they both credit their mother and their wives for helping instill and maintain good habits.)

    The Cleveland brothers have witnessed big changes in the eight decades they’ve lived with diabetes. They remember glass syringes that had to be reused and boiled on the stove, and steel needles that had to be sharpened with a whetstone. “Sometimes it was like getting stuck with a knitting needle,” Robert Cleveland remembered. For decades, the Clevelands heated urine on the stovetop, then added a chemical solution to test for sugar levels. Can you imagine? It makes me realize how lucky we are now. The fact that these two are doing so well -- despite how difficult it used to be -- is even more amazing.

    “My main reason to stay alive,” Gerald said, “is to prove to young people there’s a way to live with diabetes, to live well.”

    I’d say he’s proved it very well.

Published On: February 14, 2006