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Behind the headlines: Life expectancy in people with Type 1 diabetes

News headlines this morning focus on life expectancy for people with Type 1 diabetes, with the headline, Type 1 diabetes ‘takes 12 years off your life’. The headlines highlight new research that looks at the differences in life expectancy between people with Type 1 and the general population.

News stories describe how the ‘gap’ in life expectancy between people with Type 1 and people without the condition hasn’t changed, but this obscures the fact that life expectancy for people with Type 1 has improved in recent years.

The study found that men with Type 1 had an increased life expectancy of 1.9 years, and women 1.5 years when comparing samples from 1997-2003 and 2004-2010. Just a few years ago, the difference between life expectancy for the general population and people with Type 1 was put at 15-20 years. These new studies place this gap as 12.2 years.

Medical research has produced new treatments like different types of insulins, pumps and continuous glucose monitors, but it is very difficult to predict the future and the impact of these and they won’t be seen on life expectancy figures for some years.

Life expectancy is very difficult to measure, as people are diagnosed with Type 1 at various ages, and there is a wide variation in how people with Type 1 are able to manage their condition.  The researchers behind both of the studies published today are clear that the headline figures about average life expectancy for people with Type 1 do not provide an accurate ‘life expectancy’ figure for individuals living with Type 1 today.

It is also clear that data provided also does not take into account the fact that lifetime exposure to hyperglycaemia may take many years to show in an individual, as glycaemic control has long lasting effects.  There have been many changes in treatment and how people with Type 1 can manage their condition in the last 20 years, but these are probably only now beginning to show in the current picture of mortality.

These numbers show that the gap between people with Type 1 and the general population is not closing as quickly as we want it to.  However, it is also certain to say that life expectancy for people with Type 1 diabetes has improved in recent years, thanks to medical research driving innovations in treatment, but the impact of these won’t be seen on life expectancy figures for some years.

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