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Three out of five ain’t bad? Some diabetes measures improved over 17 years



– New research suggests that the health of Americans with diabetes changed markedly in the past 2 decades, improving on three out of five fronts.

Illustration highlighting the word diabetes ©Tashatuvango/

As the age of statins dawned, cholesterol levels dipped dramatically, while blood pressure levels and smoking prevalence also fell. But hemoglobin A1c levels stubbornly stayed steady, and obesity rates ballooned.

In light of the not entirely impressive numbers, “maybe we need to follow the model of team collaboration we see in the heart care setting,” said study lead author Carla I. Mercado, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. She spoke in an interview at the annual scientific sessions of the American Diabetes Association, where she presented the study findings.

For the new study, Dr. Mercado and colleagues used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to track the health of adults with diabetes in the United States during 1999-2016. “With all the efforts on diabetes care management, we wanted to see if our efforts are making a difference in the population,” Dr. Mercado said.

The 5,534 participants had self-reported diabetes, were not pregnant, and underwent a physical examination. Throughout the periods examined (1999-2004, 2005-2010, and 2011-2016), the proportion of women remained steady at about one-half. So did the racial makeup, which ranged from 59% to 63% non-Hispanic white, 15% to 18% black, 7% to 10% Mexican-American, and 12% to 15% “other.”

Nearly half were aged 45-64, and 89%-90% had health insurance. There was a significant change in the education levels among those aged 25 and older: The percentage with at least a college degree grew from 14% in 1999-2004 to 21% in 2011-2016, while those with less than a high-school diploma fell from 34% to 23% over that period.

From 1999-2004 to 2011-2016

  • Cholesterol: Most notably, the percentage of participants with non-HDL cholesterol levels below 130 mg/dL soared, from 30% to 54%. The CDC considers levels less than 100 mg/dL to be ideal. “I’m sure this is driven by medication use,” Dr. Mercado said.
  • Smoking: The percentage of never smokers rose, from 44% to 47% of the subjects, while that of current smokers dropped, from 26% to 21%, a significant difference.
  • Hypertension: The percentages with blood pressure levels less than 120/80 mm Hg – considered normal levels by the CDC – rose significantly, from 26% to 30%. “People are a lot more aware of blood pressure,” Dr. Mercado said.
  • Glycemic control: HbA1c levels stayed roughly steady. About 10% had levels at or above 10% in both 1999-2004 and 2011-2016, and the number with A1c levels below 6% dipped slightly from 19% to 17%.
  • Obesity: The proportion of participants with body mass index levels at or above 30 kg/m2, the line between overweight and obese, rose from 54% to 61%. The percentage of those with BMIs below 25 kg/m2 – considered to have normal weights – fell significantly, from 17% to 12%.

The researchers also looked at the percentage who reached ABCS goals (A1c at or below 9%, blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg, non-HDL cholesterol under 160 mg/dL, and current nonsmoking status). The percentage who met all of these criteria grew from 26% to 40%, while those who met three of them stayed steady (40%-39%).

The study was funded by the CDC. The study authors report no relevant disclosures.

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