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Diabetes Could Cause up to 12% of US deaths

February 23, 2017

The proportion of deaths attributable to diabetes in the US is as high as 12 percent—three times higher than estimates based on death certificates suggest—a new analysis shows.

For a new study, published in PLOS ONE, researchers used two large datasets that included more than 300,000 people to estimate the fraction of deaths attributable to diabetes among people ages 30 to 84 between 1997 and 2011. To come up with the estimates, researchers calculated the prevalence of diabetes in the population, as well as excess mortality risk among people with diabetes over five years of follow up.

The proportion of deaths attributable to diabetes was estimated to be 11.5 percent using one dataset—the National Health Interview Study (NHIS)—and 11.7 percent using the other—the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Among the subgroups examined, the attributable fraction was highest among individuals with obesity (19.4 percent).

The proportion of deaths overall was significantly higher than the 3.3 to 3.7 percent of deaths in which diabetes is identified on death certificates as the underlying cause.

“The frequency with which diabetes is listed as the underlying cause of death is not a reliable indicator of its actual contribution to the national mortality profile,” writes Andrew Stokes, assistant professor of global health at Boston University School of Public Health, and Samuel Preston, professor of sociology and a researcher with the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

They say their analysis indicates that diabetes was the third leading cause of death in the US in 2010, after diseases of the heart and malignant neoplasms.

Diabetes Prevention in an Unlikely Setting

Diabetes is associated with a number of diseases and disabilities, including ischemic heart disease, renal disease, and visual impairment. Its prevalence has risen rapidly in the US and worldwide in the last 20 years.

“Our results demonstrate that diabetes is a major feature on the landscape of American mortality, and they reinforce the need for robust population-level interventions aimed at diabetes prevention and care,” Stokes says.

One of the ways healthcare providers are ramping up preventative care and early diagnosis of insulin resistance and diabetes is coordination with dentists and screening in the dental office.

Diabetes and periodontal disease are bi-directionally connected—meaning having one makes it more likely you’ll get the other. Often, dental professionals can see the first signs of diabetes in the mouth. Likewise, people with diabetes usually require specialized dental care to manage the inflammation that accompanies both diabetes and gum disease.

Preventative measures and early detection by dental professionals may prove to be a critical component to reducing the number of deaths from diabetes, as approximately one-third of people with diabetes don’t know they have it.

The True Scope of Diabetes

The study notes that “the sensitivity and specificity of death certificate assignments of diabetes as an underlying cause of death are low—far below those of administrative records or surveys.”

When both diabetes and heart disease are mentioned on a death certificate, the researchers add, the decision about whether diabetes is listed as the underlying cause is “highly variable.”

The NHIS dataset is based on self-reports of diabetes diagnoses, while the NHANES data contains both self-reports and HbA1c levels, a preferred biomarker for the presence of diabetes. Individuals in both datasets were linked to the National Death Index through December 2011 to calculate mortality over five years.

The National Institute on Aging and the National Center for Health Statistics funded the work.

This article was shared and modified under the Attribution 4.0 International license from

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