Throughout her childhood, Sheri Colberg remembers thinking, "I'm going to die by the time I get out of high school."
She had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1968, at age 4, and back then, she says, "there weren't a lot of tools" to help people keep their blood sugar levels under control.
Now 43, she is an associate professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and co-author with endocrinologist Steven Edelman of "50 Secrets of the World's Longest Living People With Diabetes" (Marlowe & Co., $15.95).
The book, being published next month, includes profiles of more than 50 people who have lived decades with diabetes, some more than 80 years, and who share their success stories.
Colberg says the most important bit of advice she was given was "live life first and be diabetic second."
It's something she heard time and again. "They didn't let it control them," she says. People who have a chronic disease such as diabetes often suffer depression and hopelessness, but "these people have gone so far beyond that, to the point of embracing diabetes," she says. They say, " 'Diabetes saved my life. I look around and see people so unhealthy, and I'm healthy.' "
But for many, getting to that point is the biggest hurdle to a healthy life, she says. "If you don't heed that wake-up call, diabetes can be very devastating. It has the ability to shorten life by about 12 years, and you can have (complications) that reduce the quality of life for the last 20."
Keep track and know your numbers. Until the early '80s, people with diabetes could check their blood sugar levels only by the unreliable method of urine testing. The first glucose meters required a "big blob of blood," Colberg says, and took two minutes to get a reading. Now, "you've got this microdot of blood on your finger, put it on a strip and the strip sucks it in," giving a reading in seconds. New insulin pumps can work with glucose meters to allow on-the-spot adjustments and tighter control of sugar levels.
Learn as much as possible about diabetes. To be an advocate for yourself and take responsibility for your own care, Colberg says, you need to understand the facts about diabetes. Once you have the information, share it. Some of the best support comes from others with diabetes, she says.
Exercise. This was advised by every person interviewed, Colberg says. "The ones who didn't do a structured exercise plan every day were physically active, always on the go. There wasn't one who just sat around and did nothing."
Eat well. Gone are the days when people with diabetes were limited to a diet of mainly low-carb, high-fiber vegetables, with no sugar allowed. Colberg says one of the tragedies of her own diagnosis was having to give up Froot Loops as a tot. "I cried." Now she can eat anything, in moderation, but she'll pass on the Froot Loops.