B. B. King, who died Thursday night at age 89, was not only one of the world’s most famous blues musicians. He was also a prominent spokesman for type 2 diabetes, after being diagnosed in 1991 in his mid-60s.
King continued to tour aggressively, performing in hundreds of concerts every year, well into his 70s. In 2014, he was hospitalized for high blood sugar and dehydration after cutting a performance short. He canceled the rest of that tour.
His most recent illness began in April with high blood pressure and another round of dehydration. After a brief hospitalization, King returned to his Las Vegas home and entered hospice care.
B. B. King’s rise to fame from rural Mississippi, where his parents were sharecroppers, through playing street corners in Memphis, Tennessee, to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom was anything but typical.
But we wondered how typical his experience with diabetes was. Nearly 1 in 10 people in the United States have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly as many are living undiagnosed with the disease.
King was fortunate to be diagnosed later than most. Most people learn they have type 2 diabetes between the ages of 45 and 64; King was 65.
But his African heritage put him at greater risk. Type 2 diabetes affects 13 percent of black Americans and 7 percent of white Americans. Only Native Americans and Alaskans have higher rates of diabetes.
King did not have to take insulin to manage his disease. Instead, he used diet and oral medication to keep his blood sugar in check.
King was a long-time spokesman for OneTouch glucose meters. In 2011, he starred in a commercial for the product alongside Crystal Bowersox, then 25, a type 1 diabetic who was the runner-up in season nine of the television show “American Idol.”
Diabetes increases a person’s risk of a number of cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure. But only about 3 percent of diabetics have high blood pressure.
More than 1 in 4 African American diabetics are hospitalized each year. Blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to die from diabetes as of 2010, the last year for which government data are available.
That year, diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. A type 2 diagnosis increases a person’s risk of dying at any age by 50 percent.
Type 2 diabetes adds $176 billion to U.S. healthcare costs per year. On average, it more than doubles the patient’s annual healthcare expenses.
B. B. King is survived by 15 children, two ex-wives, a whole lot of fans, and a Gibson guitar named Lucille.