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Gladys Dull: At 90, Living Well with Type 1 Diabetes for 83 Years

Dr. Sheri Colberg’s new book came out this month. 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes. is just what the title says. This week she lets us know about Gladys Dull, a Walla Walla, Washington resident who has been using insulin since 1924.

Although the Cleveland brothers’ (Bob and Gerald) joint longevity is impressive, a woman equally deserving of admiration is Gladys Dull, a Walla Walla, Washington resident since 1938 who has been on insulin injections just slightly longer than Bob Cleveland has—since November of 1924, a couple of months before she turned seven years old. To our knowledge, she is the longest-living person with diabetes to date.

Born in North Dakota, she lost her birth parents during a flu epidemic in 1920 when she was only three years old. Fortunately, she and one of her sisters were soon adopted and raised by some neighbors who were part of the farming community there. She remembers feeling sick before her diagnosis and needing to urinate all the time. After traveling the nine miles from where they lived in the country to the nearest doctor, she was diagnosed with diabetes, but the small-town doctor didn’t know how to treat it. He suggested that her adoptive parents take her to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, New York, which they consented to do. Gladys remembers the long train trip from her home to the clinic, where she was immediately admitted to the hospital for treatment with the newly available, Lilly-made insulin.

alt“I remember the first shot I got and being scared of it,” Gladys recalls more than eight  decades later. “The needles back then were a lot more painful than they are now—and a lot more expensive.” Her mother had to go to classes at the Mayo Clinic to learn what to do for her, including weighing wax figures of food that were a certain number of grams. “My mother weighed everything out for me after that,” she says. “She’d let me have one gram more than what I was supposed to have.” Since she wasn’t allowed to eat candy anymore, her grandfather used to buy her a newspaper to read (for the comics) instead, which almost made up for the one piece of candy a week she used to get on a trip into town.

Gladys has enjoyed the support and family and friends for all of her life with diabetes, including her husband, George Dull, with whom she enjoyed a fifty-nine-year marriage that ended in 2002 with his passing. Married in 1943 during WWII, she and her husband (who was born in 1915) were separated for two and a half years while he was stationed overseas with his Army unit. Later, after his return, they moved to Walla Walla, where she has lived ever since and worked part-time in a portrait studio for thirty years. At the age of thirty, she gave birth to her only child, Norm Dull, who lives in a nearby town in Washington State. Amazingly, she has outlived all four of her brothers and sisters, two of whom were older, the other two younger, and all diabetes-free. Her last sister recently died from Alzheimer’s disease (of which Gladys has absolutely no signs, even though the risk is possibly higher in people with diabetes). “After seeing what my sister went through, I would much rather be diabetic than have Alzheimer’s,” Gladys says.

This spunky ninety-year-old with diabetes attributes most of her success with diabetes to being active most of her life and to sticking to her diet. “When I was younger, I did everything—horseback riding, cycling, snowmobiling, motorcycle riding—I always stayed active.” In addition, because of her early training, to this day Gladys can still tell approximately how much a serving of any food weighs, and she still watches her portions strictly. “I give my mother credit for that,” she says. “She was strict with me, and I thank her for it now.” Her son also credits Gladys with raising him on her diet, saying, “I still eat lots of veggies, thanks to Mom.” Her diet doesn’t vary much, and neither do her insulin requirements.

In all likelihood, another of her secrets is the fact that she has religiously taken her insulin shots since they first saved her life back in 1924. “I have never missed a shot in all these years,” she affirms. “To date, I’ve had over 60,000 of them.” Taking injections is just a small price to pay for her longevity, though. May we all live strive to live so long and do so well with diabetes!

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This profile of Gladys Dull is excerpted from my new book about what has worked well for long-time diabetes survivors: 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes by Sheri Colberg, PhD, and Steven V. Edelman, MD (available November 2007).  Check my Web site (www.shericolberg.com) for more details or to order this book online.