PhotoResearchers from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) recently undertook a project that can help prevent and treat diabetes cases as early as possible.

Though physicians tend to use multiple methods to confirm patients’ diabetes -- such as a plasma glucose test, an oral glucose tolerance test, an HbA1c test, or a fasting glucose level test -- a routine blood test can detect diabetes five years before the disease manifests.

“Although screening and treatment for prediabetes and diabetes could permit earlier detection and treatment, many in the at-risk population do not receive the necessary screening,” said lead researcher Dr. Mary Rhee. 

The power of early detection

To see how a routine blood test could be effective in predicting diabetes, the researchers utilized data collected from over 900,000 VA patients, none of whom had been diagnosed with disease. 

The researchers explained that many physicians will wait until a patient shows other diabetes symptoms to perform a plasma glucose test, but VA patients randomly get the test three times per year, and many patients get them as part of outpatient procedures. The plasma glucose test is preferable for patients over other diabetes tests because it doesn’t require them to stop eating for any extended period of time, which is precisely why many physicians don’t solely rely on it for any clues to diagnosis. 

However, the researchers of this study sought to understand how the test can be useful for both patients and doctors in detecting diabetes. 

When doctors administer a plasma glucose test for patients who could be at risk of diabetes, they typically look for a reading that is 200 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter) or higher. But in this study, the researchers found that patients who had elevated numbers but didn’t meet that 200 mg/dl mark were at an increased risk for later developing diabetes. 

The study revealed that patients who had plasma glucose levels as low as 115 mg/dl and as high as 130 mg/dl, numbers that typically wouldn’t be cause for concern with this test, were diagnosed with diabetes up to five years later. 

The researchers hope that these findings inspire more patients to have plasma glucose tests as early as possible, and more frequently, as doing so could help their physicians detect and treat diabetes before it becomes life-threatening. 

“These findings have the potential to impact care in the VA and in the general U.S. population, as random plasma glucose levels -- which are convenient, low-cost, and ‘opportunistic’ -- could appropriately prompt high-yield, focused diagnostic testing and improve recognition and treatment of prediabetes and diabetes,” said Dr. Rhee. 

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