No doubt about it: James Earl Jones is an icon. The legendary actor, now 85 years old, is probably best known by fans worldwide as the unmistakeable voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King. But one thing most people probably don't know about Jones is that he has type 2 diabetes, which he's speaking publicly about for the first time in 20 years.
Jones actually found out about his diabetes by accident, which isn't uncommon. More than 1.4 million people are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes every year, and sometimes there's not a clear-cut way of telling if you have it.
"I didn't notice any symptoms," Jones says. "I had gone to a diet and exercise program hoping to lose some weight and ended up falling asleep sitting on a bench in the gymnasium. My doctor, who happened to be there, said that's not normal. He encouraged me to go get a test, and I did — and there it was: type 2 diabetes. It hit me like a thunderbolt."
The diagnosis forced him to start paying closer attention to his health.
There it was: type 2 diabetes. It hit me like a thunderbolt.
"I had to retrain myself to be aware of when my body is telling me something," Jones says. "Usually with low blood sugar, it's easy to notice. With high blood sugar, it's not as easy, and that can be the most dangerous aspect of type 2 diabetes."
But he's determined not to let the condition stop him from doing what he loves.
"I can live to the extent that I can do all the work I used to do 10 years ago," he says. "I love working, and at my age I still love being able to put in eight shows a week on a play or handle a long schedule if I'm doing film or television. I didn't want that to stop, so I had to take responsibility with my condition."
Jones has had his fair share of struggles with living with diabetes and keeping his blood sugar balanced over the past two decades, but there are four key things that he says help him live well:
1. Have a Solid Support Group
"My wife, my manager, and my assistant — who's also my son — are always there to support me and make sure I'm eating the healthiest I can. I don't leave home without my son," Jones says.
John Anderson, MD, past president of Science and Medicine for the American Diabetes Association, says Jones is right on the money.
"Everyone with type 2 diabetes is different. We come with different backgrounds, education levels, support systems, and motivation levels," Dr. Anderson says. "It's really important to be in communication with the entire team that takes care of you. Your doctor, your dietician, diabetes educator. Make sure that therapy works for you."
2. Stick With the Healthy Diet
Jones admits his biggest struggle is balancing his blood sugar — and steering clear of the treats he knows he isn't supposed to have.
"It can be so frustrating. I went through several [blood] tests last night and this morning myself, and it's just amazing what you learn," he says. "There are certain things I'm allowed, and certain things I'm not allowed. Sometimes my family will catch me sneaking a cookie. They're on to me."
3. Get Some Exercise
Staying active has numerous health benefits, but it's especially important for those trying to keep their diabetes in check. Jones' exercise of choice? Getting outdoors with his favorite people.
"I love taking walks outside with my family," he says. "It's the most fun for me — especially in the spring with this nice weather."
4. Pay Attention to Mental Health
Although it's often overlooked, maintaining mental health is a crucial part of living with any health condition — diabetes included.
"When you have a chronic disease, especially one like diabetes, the co-morbid condition like behavior disturbance and depression is what we call 'diabetes stress,'" Anderson explains. "It plays a big role, so it's important for the patient — as well as whoever is taking care of that person — to explore that."
Jones admits he hasn't always been in tune with his mental health, but he now makes a conscious effort to pay attention to his mood throughout the day.
"I do notice when I'm fatigued — it's like I'm in a daze," he says. "But I've had to learn to distinguish when that becomes depression, and I'm not very good at that yet. But at least I'm alert to it."
Jones is working to raise awareness about his condition through ICanImagine.com, where visitors can take a quiz and learn ways to better manage their type 2 diabetes. Every time the quiz is taken, a donation is made to the American Diabetes Association.