82 Years with Diabetes Is Just a Start…

The following article is excerpted from my upcoming book, 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes, and is currently featured in the August/September issue of Diabetes Health magazine (www.diabeteshealth.com).

After All These Years: Robert “Bob” Cleveland, Age 87, Living With Type 1 Diabetes for 82 Years

Not to be outdone by his older brother Gerald (the oldest living person with diabetes most of his life), Bob Cleveland is believed to be the longest-living person with type 1 diabetes to date after Gladys Dull, who beats him by less than a year.

Bob was diagnosed in 1925, shortly after insulin became commercially available. Certainly, you can attribute a part of his successful life span to inheriting good genes, but there is much more to his longevity than that.

Although he was only five when diagnosed with diabetes more than four-fifths of a century ago, Bob still remembers the day he went into the hospital. “I thought I was going to the hospital to die,” he admits. Although he had wasted away to skin and bones, the doctors still initially put him on a “starvation diet” to control his blood sugars, a standard treatment in the pre-insulin era. Luckily for him, insulin had just been discovered in 1921 and was available to treat him. Once the doctors got his insulin doses adjusted and were able to put him on a diet to gain some of the weight back, he was sent home.

Bob’s early years with diabetes were particularly challenging. He remembers things being “touch and go” for a time, with his mother pulling him out of diabetic comas caused by low blood sugars while trying to take care of his three siblings. “There was no way to really test for blood sugar levels back then, so everything was strictly a guess,” he recalls. He and his mother realized the positive effects of exercise early on, though, even while relying on ineffective and inaccurate urine testing methods.

“I was taking lots of insulin, but Mom would cut back on my doses when I exercised a lot. She could tell by testing my urine. If there was no sugar in it, she cut back my dose.” (To her credit, her methods of insulin adjustment were well ahead of the standard medical practice at the time.) To this day, Bob is an avid cyclist, often riding twenty miles or more at a time, even though he can’t walk nearly as far as he used to due to weakness in his leg muscles. When he rides, he can sometimes go all day without taking any insulin other than his normal dose of long-acting basal insulin (Lantus), and yet his blood sugars stay good all day long.

Bob is proud of having diabetes and likes to help anyone he can, but in his earlier years, he didn’t feel free to talk about it. In fact, for most of his life, he says, diabetes was a “disease that nobody talked about.” He found out the hard way that potential employers were often less than enamored with his diabetic state. He majored in accounting in college, but lost several jobs after admitting on the application form that he had diabetes.

As a result, he found himself having to lie about his physical condition in order to get hired. “After I heard several times, ‘we’ll call you if and when there’s an opening,’ I stopped admitting that I had diabetes. I finally got in as an accountant with General Motors in Syracuse, but I had to lie about my disease.” Diabetes couldn’t have been much of an impediment, since he went on to have a long and productive career in his chosen field, eventually becoming the supervisor of GM’s general accounting section for many years.

Bob attributes his continuing good health to a combination of getting plenty of exercise, being cautious about his diet, keeping a constant check on his blood sugars, and having a loving and supportive spouse (he has been married almost six decades to his wife Ruth). His longevity and good health have been acknowledged, along with his brother Gerald’s, by both the Joslin Diabetes Center and Lilly Pharmaceutical Company, who erected up a monument to the brothers in Indianapolis, Indiana, a couple of years ago.

“I really feel blessed living as long as I have. Even doctors at the Joslin Diabetes Center have never talked to anyone who’s had diabetes as long as I have.” Maybe Bob’s goal should be to become the first person in the history of diabetes to have it for a full century. If anyone can do it, he can!

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