Shortly after B.B. King’s death was announced, the internet was quick to pass judgement on his legacy, not just when it came to his musical career, but also when it came to his health.
King, who died at age 89, had been very open and frank about his Type 2 diabetes diagnosis. He lived with the condition for some 34 years, and became a spokesman for the OneTouch blood glucose meter.
Diabetes forums on Facebook filled with messages of sadness and grief, especially after the Associated Press reported that a coroner found that King’s death was due to a series of mini-strokes caused by his Type 2 diabetes. “The demon claims another one,” wrote one chat participant.
Meanwhile, Natural Society, a website that advocates for natural health cures, decided to use King’s death as click-bait for an article proclaiming how Type 2 diabetes can be easily reversed. “Sad: B.B. King Dies of Preventable Type 2 Diabetes Thanks to Big Pharma,” the headline proclaimed. While the title pinned King’s death on the pharmaceutical industry, writer Anthony Gucciardi quickly veered to say the blues legend died because of “a condition that is…entirely preventable and generated through a diet of the processed junk that has overtaken the food supply.” The rest of the article discards King and instead talks about lifestyle alterations that might reverse Type 2 diabetes.
It is understandable for a public figure’s death from diabetes to give one pause. As editor for a pair of diabetes publications, I even hesitated to write a story that focuses on someone’s death from Type 2 diabetes, as there is already enough fear surrounding the condition. I was persuaded by others to take another look at the story, and I’m glad I was.
I realize now that I may have been missing the real story by focusing on B.B. King’s death from Type 2 diabetes. The real story should be B.B. King’s life with diabetes, a vibrant, long, and active life making some of the best music of the 20th century.
B.B. King’s body of work is legendary. He produced some 50 albums. Throughout his life, he regularly toured for 300 days out of the year, and he still toured at least half the year in his eighties. After dealing with Type 2 diabetes for more than a couple of decades, he was still putting on blues concerts on average every other night, year in and year out. (Yes, he had to sit down to play for the last decade or so of his life, but I would like to be able to sit down and play guitar as well as B.B. King at my age, let alone in my ninth decade.)
As he explained in a Diabetes Health profile, King took charge of his diabetes pretty shortly after his diagnosis. King tested his blood sugar often and changed his eating habits. He began to realize diabetes probably ran in his family, but no one knew it. He thinks his father might have had it when he died while suffering from gout and “high blood glucose”. King’s mother was blind when she died at age 9, and likely had undiagnosed diabetes, he says. Not only did King keep on top of his diabetes, but he spread awareness about it.
As the saying goes, “It’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years.” That being said, we should also briefly examine King’s longevity. The average lifespan for males is 76.4 years; for black males it’s just 72.1 years. King died at 89, and only stopped touring in 2014.
Right now, YouTube is buzzing with the slightly ghoulish video of King’s last performance, right before he took ill with dehydration and exhaustion. He wasn’t on top of his game, but still tried his best to put on a show. It’s unfortunate that this is the video making the rounds, because almost anyone who has seen King perform walked away appreciating his vitality and showmanship.
I was fortunate enough to see King perform before a packed Spanish bullring, of all places, in 1998. I marveled at the big man’s stamina, not to mention the sheer joy he brought to performing. As he wiped the sweat from his brow between songs at that show, he said, “I may be old, but you make me feel young again.” The crowd of mainly twenty-somethings roared their approval.
Everyone dies, but if King didn’t live well with diabetes, I don’t know who has.