MedPageToday has recently completed a series of articles looking at socioeconomic issues related to diabetes drugs that have come onto the market in the last decade. They call it their Diabetes Drugs Investigation. I recommend the entire series to you if you have type 2 diabetes. The authors’ have five major points:
1. “Diabetes drugs improve lab tests, but not much more, particularly in pre-diabetics.” FDA drug approvals were based mostly on whether hemoglobin A1c or blood sugar levels improved, not on improvements in hard clinical endpoints such as risk of death, heart attacks, stroke, blindness, amputations, etc.
2. “Physicians and drug makers have reported diabetes drugs as the “primary suspect” in thousands of deaths and hospitalizations.”
3. “Diabetes drug makers paid physicians on influential panels millions of dollars.” The implication is that the panelists were not totally unbiased in their assessments of drug effectiveness and safety.
4. “Risk of a risk now equals disease.” This is about the latest redefinition of prediabetes which created many more “patients.” Prediabetes can progress to type 2 diabetes over a number of years: one of every four adults with prediabetes develops diabetes over the next 3 to 5 years. Some doctors are even treating prediabetes with diabetic drugs. (I recommend a “diet and exercise” approach.) The authors think the prediabetic label—one third of U.S. adults, including half of all folks over 65—is over-used and over-treated.
5. “The clinical threshold for diagnosing diabetes has crept lower and lower over the past decade.” For instance, in 1997 expert panels lowered the threshold defining diabetes from a fasting blood glucose level of 140 mg/dl (7.8 mmol/l) to 125 mg/dl (6.9 mmol/l). Four million more American adults became diabetics overnight. In 2003, they lowered the threshold for prediabetes from a fasting blood glucose from 110 mg/dl (6.1 mmol/l) to 100 mg/dl (5.6 mmol/l). Boom! 46 million more American prediabetics.
I fully agree with the authors that we don’t know which drugs for type 2 diabetes are the best in terms of prolonging life, preventing diabetes complications, and postponing heart attacks and strokes. Furthermore, we don’t know all the adverse long-term effects of most of these drugs. For instance, metformin had been on the market for over a decade before we figured out it’s linked to vitamin B12 deficiency.
That’s why I try to convince my patients to do as much as they can, when able, with diet and exercise before resorting to one or more drugs. (All type 1 diabetics and a minority of type 2 diabetics must take insulin.) Maybe it’s healthier to focus primarily on drug therapy…but I don’t think so.