New guidelines for treating the disease, which many experts consider a public-health crisis among millions of mostly overweight individuals, suggest doctors vary treatments depending on a patient's age, general health and even personal preferences. The recently updated guidelines recommend that doctors back away from pushing patients to get their blood sugar down to a standard targeted level. Aiming for a very low blood-sugar level might be appropriate for a younger person, for example, while older patients might do better with a less aggressive approach, according to the guidelines, published in June in the journal Diabetes Care.
'We need to be less dogmatic about what matters and be open to different approaches and give patients a voice' in treatment decisions, says Victor Montori, a diabetes specialist at Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., who wasn't involved with writing the guidelines but supports the new direction.
Another approach gaining wider acceptance for some patients is the use of bariatric surgery, which results in dramatic weight loss. Though it comes with risk of serious complications, the operation has been shown in recent studies to lead to a rapid lowering of blood sugar, often enabling patients to go off most or all of their diabetes medicines.
Some experts also are questioning the benefits of gradually stepping up the intensity of drug therapy, a widely accepted approach that was reaffirmed in the latest guidelines. The aim is to maintain a patient's blood-sugar level while keeping up with the progressive nature of the disease. But researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, for instance, argue in a recent small study that hitting the disease early and hard is better.
More than 24 million Americans have Type 2 diabetes, the version of the disease usually associated with being overweight and living a sedentary lifestyle. By some estimates the number could double by 2025.
In diabetes, the body isn't able to effectively use insulin or to make enough of it to metabolize glucose in the food we eat, resulting in higher than normal levels of blood sugar. Heart attacks and strokes, kidney failure, nerve damage, blindness and vascular problems leading to amputation are among the long-term complications when the disease isn't well controlled. That makes diabetes a precursor to many of medicine's most debilitating conditions. Annual costs for treatment and loss of productivity associated with the disease are about $174 billion, according to the American Diabetes Association, an education and research association that devised the new treatment guidelines in collaboration with its counterpart the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.
There have been conflicting findings over the benefits for patients of keeping blood sugar strictly controlled, helping to fuel uncertainty about how best to treat the disease. Some popular diabetes drugs come with side effects─including weight gain, bone loss and even a small risk of certain cancers. And some data have shown that aggressive efforts to achieve tight glucose control, until recently considered a desirable goal, can lead to troubling episodes of low blood sugar called hypoglycemia or to increased risk for serious heart-related problems.
Although available drugs all improve blood-sugar levels, there is a lack of data to show whether they actually prevent or delay development of diabetes' long-term consequences.
'The goal for treatment and the choice of individual drug must be personalized depending on the patient,' says Vivian Fonseca, the ADA's president for science and medicine and chief of endocrinology at Tulane University Health Sciences Center, in New Orleans.
For most patients newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, the first line of therapy is to improve diet and exercise habits to reduce blood-sugar levels. Usually metformin, a basic diabetes medication, is also prescribed. But patients with only mildly elevated blood-sugar levels may try to improve their health habits for up to six months to see if they can control the disease before beginning medication.
Blood sugar is typically defined as being under control for diabetic patients when it is below 7%, using a measure known as hemoglobin A1c, or HbA1c, according to the ADA. Under the new guidelines, that level is still desirable. But younger, newly diagnosed and well-motivated patients with a long life expectancy may want to aim for even lower levels, closer to 6%, according to the recommendations. Such aggressive therapy is expected to better keep the disease from progressing.
For older patients vulnerable to severe hypoglycemia or who may already have advanced cardiovascular disease, less stringent targets of up to 8% or even a little higher would be sufficient, the guidelines say. This also could reduce the burden of side effects from medications.
* Originally posted: Top Diagnosis