Nick Jonas: Livin' the Dream Despite Diabetes

TUESDAY Aug. 25, 2009 -- In November 2005, Nick Jonas was only 13, but on the cusp of living a life that most people just dream about. He and his brothers had landed a recording contract and were touring from city to city when his family noticed that something was wrong.

Jonas had suddenly lost a lot of weight -- about 15 pounds in three weeks. He was thirsty all the time, and suddenly had a bad attitude, which was out of character for him. What started out as a simple doctor visit changed all of their lives because Jonas received the news that he had type 1 diabetes.

"You never think it will be you. I'd had 13 years of perfect medical history," explained Jonas, who spoke before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Monday. "The first thing I asked was 'Am I going to die?' My doctor said no, but that this is something you'll have to live with for the rest of your life."

Jonas, now 16, said that while he was receiving a crash course on diabetes care at the hospital, he kept trying to think how he could turn his diagnosis into something positive, but "it just wasn't there."

Finally, he said, "It clicked. Something good could come out of this. I knew we [the Jonas Brothers] were on a journey to places I couldn't even begin to imagine. And, I thought enough's enough. Enough feeling sorry for yourself, and I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn't let [diabetes] slow me down."

Although many people are familiar with type 2 diabetes, which often strikes when you're older, type 1 diabetes is less common. Still, every year, 30,000 more children are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in the United States, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).

The exact cause of type 1 diabetes isn't clear. Researchers suspect a combination of genetic factors and an environmental "trigger" -- such as an illness -- are likely to blame. Diet is not a factor in the development of type 1 diabetes.

What doctors do know is that the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the insulin-producing (beta) cells in the pancreas and destroys their ability to produce insulin. Insulin is a hormone that allows blood sugar to be used by your body's cells for fuel. To survive, someone with type 1 diabetes must inject insulin when they eat foods containing carbohydrates so that the body can properly use the sugar in those foods as fuel. Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong illness with no known cure.

When he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2005, Jonas' blood sugar levels were above 700 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), a life-threatening level. In someone without diabetes, a normal blood sugar reading is below 140 mg/dL if you've been eating, or below 100 mg/dL after an overnight fast, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Signs of high blood sugar include:

  • Extreme thirst,
  • Hunger,
  • Frequent urination,
  • Irritability,
  • Blurry vision,
  • Stomach pain.

When blood sugar is around 300 or more, a serious condition called diabetic ketacidosis can develop, according to Dr. Neslihan Gungor, a pediatric endocrinologist at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple, Texas. This condition can cause seizures, coma and even death.

Today, Jonas manages his diabetes by using an insulin pump, checking his blood sugar frequently -- up to a dozen times a day -- and watching his diet. Jonas mentioned that a common misconception people have is thinking there are foods he can't eat because he has diabetes.

With type 1 diabetes, he explained, "You can eat just about anything you want, but you need to do enough insulin and have smaller portions."

However, people with type 1 diabetes must also be careful that they don't give themselves too much insulin, because that can cause low blood sugar levels, which can also be dangerous.

Of Jonas, Gungor said, "He's a role model for all our youngsters and he proves that a person with diabetes can still do a very good job in his profession." But, she added, that to perform at his best, Jonas must check his blood sugar frequently and stick closely to an appropriate meal plan that includes protein and healthy carbohydrates to keep his glucose levels more consistent.

Jonas appears to be managing his diabetes well. The band is just finishing a major U.S. tour, and then is filming a sequel to its popular Camp Rock movie before heading to Europe for an eight-country tour. The band also started a charity called Change for the Children to help youngsters with diabetes and other needs. On his own, Jonas has recently testified before Congress to lobby for support for diabetes research, met President Barack Obama, and is serving as a diabetes ambassador for Bayer Diabetes Care.

For those who've just received the diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, he advised, "If you're independent, don't be afraid to rely on other people with your struggles. Diabetes doesn't just affect the individual, but also the family around them. They can help you get through it."

Jonas said there are definitely times he wishes he could just be "normal" and not have diabetes for at least a day (or longer), but that he really looks forward to the moments when he hears "that there are people out there who have been encouraged by my story" or by the song he wrote about having diabetes, A Little Bit Longer.

"I always try to be on top of it," Jonas said of his diabetes, "so I can do what I want in life and I can live my dream."

More information

To learn more about living with type 1 diabetes, visit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Posted: August 2009


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