All you really need to know about type 1 diabetes Eric Hamblin likely learned in kindergarten. This 8-year-old was diagnosed at 18 months of age, and he already has enough smarts to teach first-year med students a thing or two about the disease.
“I just want to say one thing, and that’s you guys don’t know anything about diabetes,” the class clown told a capacity crowd at a University of New England Medical School seminar.
His line got the laughs he was after, but there’s truth behind it. Of an estimated 29 million Americans with diabetes, about 3 million have Eric's form of the disease. The smaller proportion of people with type 1 may be a big reason the condition so misunderstood.
Types 1 and 2 both cause high blood sugar and have insulin as the problem. Insulin is a hormone that unlocks cells to let in blood sugar, and that creates energy.
You can’t live without insulin. If you have type 1 diabetes, your body doesn’t make enough of it. If you have type 2, your body can’t use it properly. There are many other differences between the conditions.
Rumor Has It
Eric’s mom, Elizabeth Pratt Hamblin, knew the basics thanks to her job as a medical editor. “But I didn’t know what having type 1 really meant or how it was treated until he was diagnosed,” she says.
What began as an overwhelmed mother’s quest to learn how to care for her son turned into a self-help book for others: 100 Questions & Answers About Your Child’s Type 1 Diabetes.
Pratt Hamblin covers many myths about type 1 diabetes in her book, including that it only affects children. That’s not true, although it doesn’t help that the condition used to be called “juvenile” or “juvenile-onset” diabetes.
About 18,000 kids a year are diagnosed with the disease, but it can happen at any age. About 5% of adults with diabetes have type 1. And you never outgrow it, no matter how old you are when you get diagnosed.
Let’s set the record straight about some other common tales, the kind of hurtful hearsay that many people with type 1 diabetes often hear:
“You must have OD’d on sugar to get type 1 diabetes.”
“Type 1 is like being hit by lightning. It happens sometimes, and it’s not anybody’s fault,” says Steven Griffen, MD, a vice president for JDRF (formerly called the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation). “Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what causes type 1 diabetes, and researchers are still trying to get a clear picture about genetic and environmental factors that may play roles, including exposure to viruses or bacteria that live in your gut.”
One thing we do know, though, is that it’s not brought on by too much sugar.
“Could it come from getting a vaccine as a kid?”
Scientists haven’t found a link between vaccines and type 1 diabetes.
“You put on too much weight. That’s what caused it.”
No, weight is not to blame for the disease, either. Obesity and inactivity are big risk factors for type 2 diabetes and many other health problems, but there’s no such connection to type 1.
“Oh, you have the ‘bad’ kind of diabetes.”
There’s no "good" kind of diabetes, nor is it a matter of better or worse. Types 1 and 2 are different, and they have to be managed as such.
“I can’t catch it, can I?”
Nope. Diabetes is not contagious.
“No sweets for you!”
Wrong. In fact, that’s just what the doctor orders when blood sugar nosedives, a condition called low blood sugar or "hypoglycemia."
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, diagnosed with type 1 at age 7, wrote in her autobiography about a time she set all good manners aside to grab and stuff cake in her mouth to fend off a sugar low.
You can eat or drink anything you want as long as you take the right amount of insulin to balance out the carbohydrates.
“It’s probably not a good idea to play sports.”
If you pay attention to how you feel and closely watch your blood sugar levels to adjust as needed, you can stay safe and reap the rewards of getting in the game.
You can even excel. Swimmer Gary Hall, Jr. has type 1 diabetes -- and 10 Olympic medals.
“You were feeling so good last week. Why are you having trouble now? Don’t you have it figured out?”
Sometimes the disease can be hard to control, even when you stick to your meal plan and dosing schedule.
Many things -- including stress, hormone changes, periods of growth, and illness -- can cause your blood sugar to swing out of control. Ups and downs don’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.
“When can you stop the insulin? Shouldn’t you be cured by now?”
Taking insulin keeps people with type 1 diabetes alive. They must have it, but it doesn’t make the disease go away.
“There is no cure, but we are making major strides,” Griffen says. He points to life-changing treatments, including new classes of drugs, insulin pumps, continuous glucose monitors and, someday, maybe even an “artificial pancreas” to fill in for a faulty original organ.
Ironically, recent advances have also created more misconceptions. Those go something like this:
“Why don’t you get one of those devices to check your blood sugar for you?”
For many people, certain technology isn’t an option. It can be expensive, and insurance may not cover the cost.
Eric had a continuous glucose monitor for a few years. But that device wasn’t in the budget when his mom lost her job during the economic crisis. He uses a meter now.
“There is a misconception that just because it is out there, anyone can get it, which is not true at all,” Pratt Hamblin says.
“Thank goodness you have that pump so you don’t have to worry about your blood sugar.”
When people find out her son has an insulin pump, they think it automatically fixes his blood sugar, Pratt Hamblin says.
“The pump helps a lot, but every time he puts food in his mouth, someone has to do a math calculation, enter information, and give him insulin unless he’s low, in which case I have to manually shut it off,” she says.
The reality is that managing type 1 diabetes is a 24/7 job.
“Sure, it’s a complicated disease that affects all aspects of your life, but it shouldn’t keep you from doing anything you put your mind to,” Griffen says. “You can eat what you want, you can play sports, drive cars, get pregnant, have kids... It just comes with a condition, which is being aware of the situation and managing your sugar.”