Good News! Deaths From Type 1 Diabetes Dropping
April 26, 2001 -- Six times each day, 11-year-old Mathew Cooper tests his blood glucose levels with a monitoring device that looks like a small GameBoy. Diagnosed with type1 diabetes when he was 1 year old, the Boulder, Col., pre-teen uses the readings to decide how many carbohydrates to eat with each meal and how much insulin to give himself throughout the day.
His mom, Sonia, says careful monitoring of blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels has allowed her son to live a completely normal life. He is on the swim team at school, loves to play lacrosse and hockey, and regularly goes skiing with his family.
"He has never had a seizure, and he has never had a severe low [blood sugar] that has required medical assistance," she tells WebMD. "I think that frequent testing [of blood glucose levels] is largely responsible for this. We have been monitoring Mathew since he was 1, and it's just second nature to us."
Approximately 750,000 people in the U.S. have type 1, or insulin-dependent, diabetes. Once known as juvenile-onset diabetes because it is most often diagnosed in children or adolescents, type 1 diabetes results from the body's failure to produce insulin and was once a leading cause of death in children.
Now an ongoing study shows a dramatic drop in type 1 diabetes deaths over the last two decades, and researchers give much of the credit to improved monitoring of blood glucose levels by both patients and their physicians.
"Since around 1980, we have had the ability to monitor glucose levels much more closely, and this study shows it is paying off in terms of [saving lives]," study author Trevor Orchard, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, tells WebMD. "[Clinical] trials have shown that close monitoring is important, but these findings offer dramatic evidence that this is true within the community."
For more than two decades Orchard and colleagues followed more than 1,000 type 1 diabetics living in Pittsburgh. All were diagnosed between 1965 and 1979. Their latest findings, reported in the May issue of the journal Diabetes Care, show that more than twice as many patients diagnosed in the early years of the study (1965-1969) died within 20 years of diagnosis compared with those diagnosed in the later years (1975-79). The patients in the latter group are now in their 20s and 30s.
"The timing of this drop in deaths exactly fits the introduction of advanced monitoring devices," Orchard says. "These patients have had the benefit of being able to closely track their insulin requirements."
While the figures are encouraging, American Diabetes Association President-Elect Christopher D. Saudek, MD, points out that the overall mortality rate for people with type 1 diabetes is still twice that of those without the disease. And a decline in mortality rates among blacks did not change the fact that they are three times more likely to die from type 1 diabetes within 20 years of being diagnosed than are whites.