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B.B. King: A Long Life that Should Have Been Longer

B.B. King, probably the best-known blues singer and guitarist in the world and a 15-time Grammy-Award winner, died at age 89 on May 14, 2015. He died from a series of strokes and kidney and heart failure brought on by diabetes, caused by a lifelong unhealthful lifestyle. King was a high-profile spokesperson in the fight against diabetes, but didn't follow the rules necessary to control this curable disease. He was a diagnosed diabetic for more than 25 years, and earlier pictures of him show a massive belly so it is likely that he had diabetes for at least 40 years. His genes probably would have allowed him to live many more years if he had avoided obesity, lack of exercise, a horrible diet and other lifestyle factors that cause and worsen diabetes.

The Road from Poverty to Stardom
He was born in 1925 to sharecroppers on a cotton plantation near Itta Bena, a very small town in Mississippi. His mother left his father when he was four, so he was raised by his maternal grandmother. At age 12, he borrowed $15 from the plantation owner to buy his first guitar. As a teenager he picked nearly 500 pounds of cotton a day, earning 35 cents for every 100 pounds he picked. He went to the larger city of Indianola, Mississippi and played on the streets for handouts from passersby. At age 15, he dropped out of high school because he could make more money by playing his guitar at night. At age 18, he learned how to drive a tractor and suddenly had his pay raised as high as $22.50 a day. That same year, he enlisted in the Army, but was discharged at the request of his local draft board because he was more valuable as a tractor driver working on farms to grow food for the Army. At age 21, he moved to Memphis and got a job as a disc jockey on WDIA radio, the first radio station programmed for the black audience.

In 1951, at age 26, he was discovered by Sam Phillips of Sun Records, where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and others got their starts. On our recent riverboat/cycling trip down the Mississippi River, we visited the original Sun Records studio, which is now a museum that has many of B.B. King's early recordings.

He Worked Harder than Everyone Else
When he taught himself to play the guitar, he found out that he lacked the coordination to sing and play at the same time, so he alternated singing and playing long cords. He was the first blues performer to do this. His fingers were too wide to use the bottlenecks and slides that other guitarists used, so he rocked the fingers of his left hand rapidly on the guitar frets in the same way that concert violinists make their strings shake for a vibrato sound. Some of the very best musicians copied him, including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayer and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

At age 27, he and his band started to wear fancy three-piece suits because "Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Glenn Miller don’t wear jeans." Other black musicians criticized him for dressing like white people to cater to white audiences. However, he was clearly better and worked harder than almost everyone else, giving more than 300 performances year after year. In 1956 he played 342 appearances.

He married Martha Lee when he was 17 and Sue Hall when he was 32. Both marriages lasted only a few years, probably because of his incredible work schedule that kept him away from home almost every night. He claimed to have had 15 children with several different women, and 50 grandchildren.

He recorded more than 50 albums and became famous all over the world. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, won a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1988, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1990 and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1991.

Diabetes Takes its Toll
In 2013, he told Rolling Stone, "I'm slower. As you get older, your fingers sometimes swell. But I've missed 18 days in 65 years. Sometimes guys will just take off; I've never done that. If I'm booked to play, I go and play." In October 2014, he cancelled eight tour dates because he was too sick to perform. Swollen fingers mean that he was retaining fluid and for a diabetic, that often means kidney or heart failure. He probably had both organs failing. He was hospitalized twice and on May 1, 2015, his website announced that he was in hospice care at his home in Las Vegas. He died there on May 14.

Malnutrition in Utero and Childhood Increases Diabetic Risk in Later Life
His early poverty placed him at high risk for diabetes. Several studies show that food deprivation increases risk for obesity, diabetes and heart attacks in later life when children are:
• deprived of food in early life,
• born to mothers who were deprived of food before and during pregnancy (Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology 2001;185: 93–98). See my report Don't Restrict Food During Pregnancy. B.B. King's early promotional photos show a slim young man, even skinny, but by the 1970's and 1980's he was grossly overweight, His huge stomach tells me that he was already headed for diabetes and was probably diabetic for many years before he was diagnosed.

How Diabetes Kills
King had Type II diabetes that almost always starts when your blood sugar rises too high after you eat. This causes sugar to stick to the outside surface of all the cell membranes everywhere in the body. Once stuck on a cell membrane, sugar can never get off. It is eventually converted by a series of chemical reactions to sorbitol which destroys the cell.

For most diabetics, the first sign is weight gain characterized by fat deposits underneath the skin in the belly. People who can pinch more than two inches in the skin over their belly should get a blood sugar level drawn two hours after eating a large meal. If it is over 140, consider yourself diabetic and expect terrible disabilities and a premature death if you don’t make immediate lifestyle changes. You are at increased risk for a heart attack. Some doctors tell their patients that a fasting blood sugar below 100 means that they are not diabetic, but this makes no sense because blood sugar levels go up and down all day long.

Diabetes doesn't just kill you, it makes your life miserable for years or decades before your death. The first cells to be noticeably damaged are usually nerve cells, causing symptoms such as burning and loss of feeling in the feet or loss of vision. Men often start to lose their ability to sustain an erection. If you ignore these symptoms, expect the next signs to be those of blood vessel damage: chest pain and shortness of breath on mild exertion. These are signs of blocked arteries leading to your heart and often predict a heart attack in the near future.

Next you will become forgetful and find that you are losing your ability to remember telephone numbers, names and faces. If you don’t change your lifestyle, it’s all downhill from there and you can end up dying from strokes, heart attacks or heart and kidney failure.

Lifestyle Changes, not Drugs, Can Cure Diabetes
More than 40 percent of Americans will become diabetic. Doctors use various drugs to control diabetes, but nobody has ever been cured of diabetes by taking drugs. A cure requires:
• Losing excess body fat
• Growing muscle
• Avoiding sugared drinks including fruit juices, all sugar-added foods and other refined carbohydrates (foods made from flour), fried foods, and red meat (blocks insulin receptors)
• Eating large amounts of fruits and vegetables
• Exercising every day (contracting muscles do not need insulin to lower high blood sugar levels)
• Getting blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D above 50 nmol/L.

Riley B. King ("B.B. King")
September 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015

May 24th, 2015
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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