updated 9/24/2004 4:43:46 PM ET 2004-09-24T20:43:46

Day in and day out, brothers Robert and Gerald Cleveland have meticulously managed their blood glucose levels, even though they've had diabetes for seven decades.

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On Thursday, the world’s leading diabetes research center paid tribute to the Clevelands for their longevity and everyday perseverance. According to the Boston-based Joslin Diabetes Center, they are the first siblings known to have lived with Type 1 diabetes for 50 years or longer.

Robert, 84, has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 79 years and, according to the center’s Dr. Hillary Keenan, is the longest known survivor. Gerald, 88, has had diabetes for 72 years.

“It’s a minor distraction from a normal person’s life. It doesn’t have to interfere with any activities,” said Robert, who believes he is probably in better overall health today because of his meticulously healthful habits.

Diabetes makes people more prone to heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blindness, kidney disease, nervous system disease and amputations.

“You’re not handicapped with diabetes,” Gerald said. “You just have a special job to do.”

A diabetic doesn’t produce or properly use insulin, the hormone needed to convert food into energy. The reason why continues to be a mystery, although genetics and factors such as obesity and lack of exercise appear to play roles, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Living with diabetes
Since the Joslin Center began its 50-year medal awards in 1972, more than 2,200 Americans have been identified as living with diabetes for 50-plus years, said Dr. George King, research director at the center, which has more than 300 doctors and scientists. Eleven patients have lived 75-plus years with diabetes, he said. In 2000, the disease claimed 69,301 lives.

Over that time, Joslin researchers have studied the group to better understand what biological and genetic factors may contribute to a long life with diabetes, Keenan said.

Today, in the United States, there are 18.2 million diabetics, a third of whom aren’t aware they have the disease. Every year, 1.3 million new cases are diagnosed in people 20 and older.

Robert, a retired accountant, was diagnosed at age 5 in 1925 — three years after insulin was invented. He nearly died. Seven years later, Gerald, a former Syracuse school superintendent, was diagnosed at age 16.

Gerald said part of their secret was a caring mother who taught them to diligently manage their disease.

Doris Guercio weighed and measured everything her sons ate. She gave them each three shots per day. She had to sterilize the needles. In a time before instant blood tests, to check her sons’ sugar levels, Guercio had to take drops of urine and boil them in a test tube over an open flame, watching for changes in color.

“Then we had two wonderful wives who would never let us give up,” Gerald said.

Today, the brothers are unwavering in their regimen.

Gerald checks his blood sugar level about eight times a day and takes insulin before every meal and at bedtime. Robert checks his blood sugar three to five times a day, and gives himself insulin as needed before meals and at bedtime.

“It’s not an easy task to be a diabetic,” Gerald said, agreeing that his illness keeps him focused on his health. “But it’s certainly a worthwhile one.”

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