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'Juvenile' diabetes at 49: 'You deal with it'

Story Highlights

• Type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, can strike adults as well
• 1 to 2 million Americans have type 1 diabetes.
• 18-20 million have type 2 diabetes, which is linked to being overweight
• Experts believe type 1 diabetes typically occurs after an infection.
By Judy Fortin
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A year before turning 50, Michele Thomas learned she had type 1 diabetes, a condition that used to be associated mainly with children.

"You deal with it," says Thomas, a stay-at-home mother from Atlanta, Georgia. "It was something I was going to have to live with. I was a mother of two young boys....I needed to stay healthy for them."

Eleven years later, Thomas stays focused on her health. "I take better care of myself than most people," she says, "I walk two miles a day and I eat a really good diet." (Watch why it's important for diabetics to manage their disease. Video )

Thomas is among the estimated 1 to 2 million Americans with type 1 diabetes. Ten times that number suffer from the more common form of the condition called type 2, which is linked to being overweight and lack of exercise.

"Type 1 means your body for whatever reason had its islet cells destroyed, typically by your own immune system," explains Dr. Bruce Bode, an endocrinologist with Atlanta Diabetes Associates. Islet cells, or the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas, are needed to convert sugar or glucose into energy. Thomas' illness used to be called juvenile diabetes. While it is still one of the leading chronic diseases of childhood, the name was changed in the 1980s when doctors concluded that type 1 diabetes can be diagnosed at any age.

An ophthalmologist was the first to suspect Thomas was suffering from diabetes. Her vision was blurred, but she also complained of increased thirst and frequent urination, common symptoms of type 1 diabetes.

Experts believe type 1 diabetes typically occurs after an infection. Thomas had been recently hospitalized with a severe kidney infection.

The support of her family helped her cope with the new diagnosis, she says. "I wasn't going to let the disease control me."

There is no cure for type 1 diabetes, but Bode says current treatments are effective in controlling the disease. "Once you get type 1 diabetes, you become dependent on insulin for the rest of your life." Some diabetics, like Thomas, use an insulin pump that controls the timing of injections. The device is attached to her abdominal skin with adhesive and the drug is pumped into her body at regular intervals through a tiny needle under the skin.

Thomas keeps track of her glucose levels by testing her blood with a finger prick four to six times a day. Doctors want patients to keep their blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible to avoid serious complications.

Experts say that not treating type 1 diabetes can have devastating effects on every organ of the body. Bode says there is "increased risk of blindness and eye damage, increased risk of kidney damage and possibly the need for dialysis or transplant. There's increased risk of nerve damage and numbness in your extremities as well as potential for loss of a limb." The excess sugar injures the walls of tiny capillaries found in the eyes, kidneys and nerves in the extremities. Too much sugar can also damage blood vessels, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.

In fact, the risk of heart attack and stroke is significantly higher for diabetics. According to the Mayo Clinic, "two of every three people with diabetes will die of a heart attack and stroke."

Thomas isn't frightened by the sobering statistics. "This is just part of my life. I'm very fortunate that this is a disease they know a lot about," she says. "It can be handled. You may not be cured, but it's possible to be healthy. The issue for me is to enjoy each day as healthfully as possible."

Judy Fortin is a correspondent with CNN Medical News.

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Michele Thomas, who learned she had type 1 diabetes when she was 49, keeps track of her glucose levels by testing her blood with a finger prick four to six times a day.

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