How Wilford Brimley Deals with Type 2 Diabetes
He's one of the world's most famous character actors -- a curmudgeon known to millions from roles in such movies as "Cocoon," "The China Syndrome" and "The Natural."
After 25 years of playing cantankerous seniors, Wilford Brimley is often called "the most recognizable grandpa in America." And he succeeded despite type 2 diabetes.
Brimley is among the nearly 24 million Americans with this condition. In this disease, the body gradually loses its ability to regulate blood sugar (glucose) that is burned for energy. Left untreated, diabetes can cause drastic effects over time. Blindness, disability and death can result as excess blood sugar damages delicate blood vessels.
"Everybody's got something, and my struggle has been with the adult onset type of diabetes," says Brimley, who splits his time between California and a Utah horse ranch. "In my case, it started back around 1980, when I put on a little weight and noticed that I was feeling tired and cranky all the time.
"I went and complained to the doc, and about the first thing he did was to check my blood sugar," he says. "Once the diagnosis came clear, I could begin managing my disease." For Brimley, that means checking his blood-sugar levels at least three times a day. Unlike many people with type 2 diabetes, he must also take insulin regularly.
"Diabetes is no fun, but the good news is that you can manage it successfully, if you work at it. That's what I've been doing all these years, and it hasn't really slowed me down much at all...even if I did stop roping steers in rodeos when I turned age 65!"
Born in Salt Lake City in 1934, Brimley moved to California with his family at age 6. He dropped out of high school to join the Marines. After a year of guard duty in the Aleutian Islands, he returned to Los Angeles and worked part time as a stunt man. But he tired of playing bit parts and went back to Utah to become a rancher, horse wrangler and rodeo contestant.
Then, in 1977, lightning struck.
"I was passing through Los Angeles on business that year," he recalls, "and I stopped by to visit a few friends. Well, one of 'em happened to be in the movie business, and he mentioned that they had just begun to audition for the role of a plant foreman in this movie about a nuclear meltdown."
The movie was "The China Syndrome," and when Brimley landed the part of plant manager Ted Spindler, his career took off. He became familiar to millions in "Absence of Malice," "Cocoon" and "The Hotel New Hampshire."
Is he impressed by his star stature? Hardly. "I'm never the leading man in a picture, and I never get the girl," he jokes.
Diabetes doesn't have to beat you
The key to managing diabetes is "checking your sugar, and checking it often," says Brimley.
"Like most diabetics, I've found over the years that I need to check my blood sugar level at least three times a day, usually before meals," he says. "That's extremely important, because if you know that you're having problems controlling the amount of sugar in your blood, you and your doctor can do something about it."
Weighing too much is one sign that you may be at risk for type 2 diabetes, which often has no symptoms. Brimley recommends several basic steps for those who have or might have diabetes:
If you do have symptoms that suggest diabetes, see your doctor immediately for testing and diagnosis. The signs include frequent urination, chronic fatigue and weakness, blurred vision and impaired sexual function, among others. If you don’t have diabetes, the American Diabetes Association recommends a screening blood test every three years beginning at age 45. You may need screening at a younger age or more frequently if you have one or more of these risk factors: family history of diabetes; you are overweight (with a body mass index of 25 or more); you lead a sedentary lifestyle; you are in a high-risk ethnic group (African American, Hispanic American, American Indian, Asian American or Pacific Islander); a previous blood test that showed high blood sugar; high blood pressure; high cholesterol; gestational diabetes; or polycystic ovary syndrome.
Work with your doctor to set up the right diabetes regimen for you. That should include changes in diet and exercise, weight loss (if needed) for those with type 2 diabetes and regular blood sugar testing. Medications that cut the amount of glucose in your blood and insulin may be needed.
Eat a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products and protein, but avoid excess carbohydrates. A dietitian can help you plan a healthy diet.
Exercise regularly. Frequent exercise will help lower your blood sugar. A brisk, 30-minute daily walk is the simplest answer.
"I've learned over many years that you can manage your diabetes, and that you can enjoy a normal, active life as a result," he says. "This disease doesn't have to beat you -- and it won't, if you just set your mind to taking care of yourself day in and day out."