While type 1 diabetes may be less prevalent than type 2, only accounting for around 8% of total diabetes cases, this does not mean that it is any less severe1. In fact, those living with type 1 diabetes may experience a shorter life expectancy compared to both those without this condition and those with type 2 diabetes.

Additionally, this has been found to be especially true for women with type 1 diabetes.

What is type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that often presents in early life, while type 2 diabetes tends to be more closely associated with our lifestyles and develops over many years, being diagnosed much later in life.

Role of insulin

In type 1 diabetes, an organ called the pancreas fails to produce a hormone called insulin. This happens because the immune system begins to attack the cells of the pancreas, making type 1 diabetes an autoimmune condition.

Insulin’s job is to move glucose from the blood into our cells, where it is used to provide us with energy and maintain normal bodily functions. Without any insulin, this process cannot happen, and glucose begins to accumulate in the blood. Regarding what causes the body to begin attacking the pancreas, this is still largely unknown. Though, we do know that this is nothing to do with diet and lifestyle.

Having elevated levels of blood glucose, also known as hyperglycaemia, can result in a number of signs and symptoms in those with type 1 diabetes. Often the most common symptoms are presented as the 4T’s, making them easy to remember! This includes:

  • Toilet (an increased need to use the toilet, especially at night)
  • Thirst (feeling unable to quench your thirst no matter how much you drink)
  • Tired (feeling lethargic and having no energy)
  • Thinner (unexplained weight loss)

Why can type 1 diabetes reduce life expectancy?

If left untreated, high levels of glucose in the blood can lead to many serious downstream effects, termed diabetes complications.

For instance, those with type 2 diabetes may experience significant damage to certain parts of the body such as the eyes, feet and heart. You may hear healthcare providers talk about these complications as either chronic or acute.

Chronic typically refers to more serious complications that accumulate over time, while acute are those that can occur at any point and may contribute to the development of chronic complications.

Examples of chronic complications may be:

Examples of acute complications may be:

  • Hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose levels)
  • Hyperglycaemia (high blood glucose levels)
  • Hyperosmolar hyperglycaemic state (a life-threatening condition resulting from extreme dehydration and very high blood glucose levels)
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis (a life-threatening condition due to the build-up of ketones)

You can read more detailed information about each of these complications.

Due to the potential for these severe complications, those living with diabetes, either type 1 or type 2, may face a shorter life expectancy than those without diabetes.

The leading cause of this premature death in this population is cardiovascular disease, including a heart attack or stroke.2-3

However, impact on life expectancy seems to be more profound in those with type 1 diabetes, reducing life by up to 20 years.2-3

This may be explained by the fact that this tends to affect people from a much younger age and so they have a longer period of their life managing this condition and battling the possible complications. In addition, women with type 1 diabetes are thought to live shorter lives than their male counterparts.

This may be due to the additional complications that these women can face during pregnancy or the prevailing presumption that heart disease is a predominantly male illness. For instance, women can be more likely to ignore symptoms of a heart attack, often due to the responsibility of being the primary caregiver, and are more likely to be misdiagnosed when being assessed by medical professionals.4

Given this, it is important to know the signs of heart disease and how to prevent this.

Having said that, when receiving the right treatment and education, people with type 1 diabetes can indeed live long and satisfying lives. Advances in medical technology and improvements in diabetes care are also improving the management of this condition and its trajectory.

In fact, the world’s first-ever immunotherapy drug for type 1 diabetes has been approved in the US, marking the most significant breakthrough in diabetes medicine yet!

Teplizumab is claimed to slow the development of the condition and delay its diagnosis, enabling those at high risk to enjoy more years of their lives diabetes-free. Given the life-changing potential of this drug, working to get this medication licensed in the UK is now underway. You can find out more about some of these developments in our articles below:

Treating type 1 diabetes

While there is currently no cure for type 1 diabetes, this is something that is constantly being researched. In the meantime, it is crucial that those living with type 1 diabetes are well-educated on how to manage this condition effectively.

This may include things like carb counting, exercising, eating a healthy balanced diet and receiving guidance on using relevant medical devices. In addition, everyone with type 1 diabetes will be required to take insulin, either via injections or insulin pumps, helping to maintain safe blood glucose levels.

Some people may also be eligible for an islet cell transplant to try and improve the function of the pancreas.

Following medical and dietetic guidance is important to ensure that your blood glucose levels are well managed, limiting the risk of future complications and offering yourself the best chance at a longer life.

Will having diabetes affect my life insurance?

You might be worried that you will not be able to take out a life insurance policy because of your condition.

We can provide support in finding the right life insurance policy for you. With over two decades of experience, our diabetes life insurance experts will compare insurance from the UK’s top providers, matching you with an insurance policy that meets your needs.

  • Click here to read more about life insurance for people with type 1 diabetes

Where can I find support?

Whether you’re newly diagnosed, have questions and would like support, or have lived with diabetes for many years and want to talk to other members of the community, the diabetes forum is the perfect place to get started.

  1. Diabetes UK: Diabetes Diagnoses Double
  2. Diabetes UK: Premature deaths
  3. Diabetes UK: Diabetes in the UK (2010)
  4. Wallace H. The Female Factor: Making women’s health count and what it means for you. 2022, Yellow Kite Books.

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