THE BLOG
10/30/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Health Ills That Can Come With Years of Diabetes

November is Diabetes Month. This month you'll hear more about diabetes symptoms and risk factors than you will all year.

But there's something you won't hear about. The health challenges those of us who've lived with diabetes for decades may face. There's little research on it; not so long ago people died before they could live that long with diabetes.

But for those of us who will have lived much of our lives with diabetes -- those who got, and will yet get, Type 1 diabetes as a child, teen or young adult, and younger adults and children now getting Type 2 diabetes -- there are many health ills (comorbidities) that can come with long-duration diabetes. These comorbidities are in addition to the complications we often hear associated with diabetes: heart disease, kidney disease, amputation, blindness, neuropathy and retinopathy.

Comorbidities with long-term diabetes
Certified Diabetes Educator Claire Blum says the following comorbidities -- muscle and joint pain, carpal tunnel, trigger fingers, high blood pressure, a deformity of your foot called Charcot's foot, nerve and thyroid problems, hearing loss, frozen shoulder, loss of flexibility and increase of rigidity and celiac disease -- occur with greater frequency in people who've had diabetes 25 to 35+ years.

What happens is, living with diabetes, your body experiences greater and more frequent inflammation. This is largely due to impaired immunity, impaired metabolism of carbohydrates and fats, hormonal imbalances and the metabolic stress associated with these disorders. These are in part caused by elevated blood sugar levels and the rate and speed at which blood sugar rises and falls.

As a result, the comorbidities above are more typically seen in people with diabetes, and at an earlier age.

Blum says traditional diabetes therapies, like checking your blood sugar, taking your medicine and counting carbohydrate and fat grams, should be considered only part of a treatment plan for staying healthy. "We need to see our body," says Blum, "as a whole system and do what supports it as a system."

What to do now to stay healthier over time
  • Manage your blood sugar -- Keep your blood sugar in the best control you can to reduce the stress to, and inflammation within, your body.
  • Eat nutritiously -- Our bodies pay metabolically with inflammation for nutrient-deficient food. Foods rich with anti-oxidants -- colorful fruits and vegetables like berries, raisins, apples and apricots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, sweet potatoes, peppers and artichokes, beans like kidney, navy, garbanzo and pinto, help curb inflammation and increase flexibility.
  • Practice stress reduction -- be aware of, and minimize, stress through mindful practices such as meditation or breathing exercises. Stress can cause adrenalin rush and increased inflammation.
  • Stay flexible and build muscle mass -- Do activities where you're moving and building bone and muscle strength like brisk walking, swimming, yoga, pilates, using resistance bands or lifting weights. It can help you prevent getting frozen shoulder, rigidity and joint inflammation.

Blum, who has Type 1 diabetes herself, said if she'd known that being more flexible might have helped her avoid the frozen shoulder she developed a few years ago, she would have started the yoga she does today earlier. "Taking care of yourself now," says Blum, "is going to help you delay comorbidities and diabetes complications if you get them at all."

When I was diagnosed at 18, I was told my lifespan would be 15 years shorter than if I hadn't gotten diabetes. Yet today many say that people with Type 1 diabetes may outlive others because we have to take care of ourselves.

The message is take care of your whole self -- body, mind and spirit -- and start now. It pays off.

As Claire and I both will tell you, she having lived with Type 1 diabetes 35 years, and me, 41 years, taking good care of ourselves we are, in many ways, healthier than we've ever been.

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Riva's new book, Diabetes Dos & How-Tos, is available in print and Kindle, along with her other books, 50 Diabetes Myths That Can Ruin Your Life and the 50 Diabetes Truths That Can Save It and The ABCs Of Loving Yourself With Diabetes. Riva speaks to patients and health care providers about flourishing with diabetes. Visit her websites DiabetesStories.com and DiabetesbyDesign.com.

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