Living Longer With Diabetes

Diabetes tends to shorten your expected life. The good news is that you can do a lot to get those years back, and most of those things feel good.

Studies disagree on exactly how much damage diabetes does. A Princeton University study of about 20,000 adults found that diabetes cuts about 8.5 years off the life expectancy of an average 50 year old, compared to a 50 year old without diabetes.


Most of this early death comes from complications such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure. People with diabetes are also less likely to be employed and more likely to be depressed and disabled, all of which can make life harder and potentially shorter, researchers found.

However, a recent Dutch study published in the online journal PLOS One found much more encouraging results. People with Type 2 and an average age of 66 seem to have the same death rate as those without diabetes.

Various factors influence death rates. According to the British site, “How soon diabetes was diagnosed, the progress of complications, and whether one has other existing conditions will all contribute to one’s life expectancy.”

What to do
Most complications of diabetes come from high blood sugars and high blood pressure. Too much sugar damages blood vessels and nerves. Almost any organ can fail given poor circulation caused by diabetes.

According to mainstream medicine, the best way to lengthen life with Type 2 is to keep sugars down. In a typical recommendation, writes, “Keeping blood sugar levels within the recommended ranges will [reduce] the likelihood of complications and increase life expectancy…Enjoy a healthy lifestyle, with a well balanced diet, and regular activity.”

If that doesn’t work, take medications, they say. With about ten categories of prescription drugs for blood sugar and an equal number for blood pressure, plus natural treatments such as bitter melon, cinnamon, and vinegar, there’s no shortage of treatments to try. Work with your health professional to find the combination of medicines that best lowers your sugar levels and fits your life.

But don’t stop there! There are many more things you can do to maximize your health and live a longer, happier life. Here are twelve of them, in no particular order.

• Pets. The Atlantic cited studies showing that, “Dog owners worldwide enjoy longer lifespans on average, reduced blood pressure, improved cardiovascular fitness, and far less stress.” According to a study in 1992 of nearly 6,000 people, cats improve their owners’ health, too.

• Sex. Many studies have reported that people who have more sex live longer. Now, new research shows that sex lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol, and increases circulation. It raises levels of oxytocin, which reduces stress.

Remember, sex doesn’t have to involve intercourse. On the site World Life Expectancy, Tom LeDuc wrote, “The intimacy and bonding you receive from remaining sexually active are more vital to your long term health than most people think… Frequent touching is one way we enhance each others’ self esteem, and nothing will help you live longer than a strong and vital sense of self worth.”

By the way, for our rodent readers, studies find sexually active mice live up to 20% longer than celibate mice.

• Sleep. The UK’s Daily Mail reports “After analysing data from 16 studies, involving more than 1.5 million participants, researchers found ‘unequivocal evidence’ of a direct link between sleeping less than six hours a night and dying prematurely.”

Do what you can to get eight hours of sleep a night. Don’t watch TV or do things that wind you up right before sleeping. Take time to wind down. Read about other pleasant ways to fall asleep and stay asleep in this article.

• Keep active. Do things that make your life interesting and give you reasons to keep going, whether that’s a fighting for a cause, taking care of family, making music, enjoying yourself, keeping house, gardening, or anything meaningful to you. Stay physically active: walk more, move as much as you can.

• Get a job you like. Studies find truly enormous differences (like 30 years) between the life span of workers who have good jobs versus those in low-income, high-stress, unpleasant jobs.

• Spiritual or religious practice. An Israeli study in 1996 found that death rates over a period of 16 years were lower in religious communities than in non-religious ones. In 1999, the University of Texas reported that regular church attendance increased life expectancy by about seven years compared to not going to church.

This could be due to support of the church community, to the stress-reducing effect of religious practice, or to the religious belief itself. People who follow spiritual practices such as meditation also seem to have lower death rates, even if they don’t go to a formal church.

• Floss your teeth. Flossing one to two times a day is associated with as much as six years of additional life in some reports. While others think those reports are exaggerated, the link is even stronger in diabetes. Diabetes and gum disease both cause inflammation, not just locally, but through the whole body. Please take care of your mouth.

• Chocolate. A number of studies have shown that eating dark chocolate may reduce the risk of heart disease, prevent Type 2 diabetes, and extend life.

• Stop smoking. Save about 15 years right there.

• Blueberries slow aging, according to studies in several different species.

• Wine and other alcohol. Light to moderate drinking (up to one drink a day for women and men older than 65 and up to two drinks a day for men 65 and under) has been consistently associated with better heart health and lower death rates. The problem is that drinking more than one to two drinks starts to have serious negative effects, so don’t push it, and don’t start drinking for the health benefits if you’re currently a non-drinker.

• More time with friends and loved ones. Loneliness and boredom are killers. Spending time with people you like, love, or enjoy is treatment. The website Live Science reports on a study showing people with more social contacts had half the mortality rate of those who were more isolated. Volunteering is one way to make new contacts.

• Have a sense of purpose. A belief that your life matters brings a 30% reduction in mortality rate. I just published an e-book about reasons to live, which you can read here or here.

Some of these claims may be a bit optimistic. I calculate that if all these advantages work out, you can expect to reach the age of 205. Should be fun. Check back with me in 100 years.

One note — weight loss probably does not add years to life with diabetes. Some studies disagree, but a recent paper from Denmark found that people with diabetes who lost weight did not live any longer than those who kept their weight.