The following article is excerpted from my upcoming book, 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes, and was posted on October 1, 2007, on the Diabetes Health magazine web site (www.diabeteshealth.com).
After all these years: Al Lewis, age 73, living with type 1 diabetes for 69 years
Anyone who knows Al Lewis of Vancouver, BC, understands why he wouldn’t switch to an insulin pump until a waterproof model became available in 1977: His whole life has revolved around water. By the time he was twelve years old, he was already fishing commercially off the coast of California. Despite having had type 1 diabetes since the age of four, he would be out at sea for days at a time, accompanied only by his fishing partner.
“I think it was harder on my parents than it was on me,” he reminisces. “My mom used to get up at 2:00 a.m. to make me breakfast before I would go out fishing, and she told me later that she would cry after I left.” He had just become a teenager when he earned a certificate from the United States Power Squadron for completing their small boat course, making him at that time the youngest person ever to be certified.
After a three-year foray into forestry at the start of college, Al found himself drawn to the study of oceanography instead (no big surprise there). He was on the swim team during both his undergraduate and his master’s degree studies, lettering at both levels. His PhD research at the University of Hawaii involved skin diving and some scuba diving. And until just recently, he swam competitively at the master’s level (defined as age 25 and older for swimming).
An emeritus professor of oceanography at the University of British Columbia, Al is convinced that his constant activity has played a large role in his diabetes longevity – close to 70 years already – and his lack of any major diabetes-related health problems. Fear of complications is a driving motivation to take care of himself, though. “I think one secret of longevity with diabetes is to be very competitive with yourself,” he says, recalling that he was even more competitive with himself than he was with other swimmers over the years. “I think it’s key to being successful with diabetes.”
It’s clear that Al is a very dedicated swimmer. He once contacted a swimming outfitter in Portland, Oregon, to see if they could make a suit that could be worn in a swimming pool and hold an insulin pump (the waterproof kind, of course). He had been wearing a fanny pack with his pump inside – both for safety when he was out at sea as an oceanographer and while swimming. In the end, they couldn’t come up with anything for him, so he settled for swimming in a triathlete full-body suit with his insulin pump tucked inside. Recent back problems have propelled Al out of the pool and into the gym for weight workouts, but he continues to commute to campus and back by bicycle. Given his lifetime of physical activity, it is highly unlikely that he will let anything stop him now, especially not a small thing like diabetes.