In a cohort study, Beate Karges and colleagues find that the association between low hemoglobin A1C and severe hypoglycemia in children and young adults with type 1 diabetes has decreased over the period between 1995 and 2012.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Severe hypoglycemia is a major complication of insulin treatment in patients with type 1 diabetes, limiting full realization of glycemic control. It has been shown in the past that low levels of hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), a marker of average plasma glucose, predict a high risk of severe hypoglycemia, but it is uncertain whether this association still exists. Based on advances in diabetes technology and pharmacotherapy, we hypothesized that the inverse association between severe hypoglycemia and HbA1c has decreased in recent years.
Methods and Findings
We analyzed data of 37,539 patients with type 1 diabetes (mean age ± standard deviation 14.4±3.8 y, range 1–20 y) from the DPV (Diabetes Patienten Verlaufsdokumentation) Initiative diabetes cohort prospectively documented between January 1, 1995, and December 31, 2012. The DPV cohort covers an estimated proportion of >80% of all pediatric diabetes patients in Germany and Austria. Associations of severe hypoglycemia, hypoglycemic coma, and HbA1c levels were assessed by multivariable regression analysis. From 1995 to 2012, the relative risk (RR) for severe hypoglycemia and coma per 1% HbA1c decrease declined from 1.28 (95% CI 1.19–1.37) to 1.05 (1.00–1.09) and from 1.39 (1.23–1.56) to 1.01 (0.93–1.10), respectively, corresponding to a risk reduction of 1.2% (95% CI 0.6–1.7, p<0.001) and 1.9% (0.8–2.9, p<0.001) each year, respectively. Risk reduction of severe hypoglycemia and coma was strongest in patients with HbA1c levels of 6.0%–6.9% (RR 0.96 and 0.90 each year) and 7.0%–7.9% (RR 0.96 and 0.89 each year). From 1995 to 2012, glucose monitoring frequency and the use of insulin analogs and insulin pumps increased (p<0.001). Our study was not designed to investigate the effects of different treatment modalities on hypoglycemia risk. Limitations are that associations between diabetes education and physical activity and severe hypoglycemia were not addressed in this study.
The previously strong association of low HbA1c with severe hypoglycemia and coma in young individuals with type 1 diabetes has substantially decreased in the last decade, allowing achievement of near-normal glycemic control in these patients.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Worldwide, more than 380 million people have diabetes, a chronic disorder characterized by high levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Blood sugar levels are usually controlled by insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. In people with diabetes, blood sugar control fails because they make no insulin (type 1 diabetes) or because the cells that normally respond to insulin by removing sugar from the blood have become insulin-resistant (type 2 diabetes). Type 1 diabetes, which tends to develop in childhood or early adulthood, is responsible for about 10% of cases of diabetes in adults and is treated with injections of insulin. Type 2 diabetes can usually be treated with diet, exercise, and antidiabetic drugs. With both types of diabetes, it is important to keep blood sugar levels within the normal range (good glycemic control) to reduce the long-term complications of diabetes, which include kidney failure, blindness, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Why Was This Study Done?
Patients with type 1 diabetes can achieve strict glycemic control using intensive insulin therapy, but such treatment is associated with a risk of severe or fatal hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Past studies have found an association between low levels of hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c, a marker of average blood sugar levels over the past 2–3 months; a low HbA1c percentage indicates good glycemic control) and a high risk of severe hypoglycemia. Because of this inverse association, people at risk of severe hypoglycemia are advised to aim for an HbA1c of 7.5% or less, which puts them at risk of diabetic complications (most adults with diabetes aim for an HbA1c of 6.5% or less; people without diabetes have Hb1Ac readings below 6.05%). With recent improvements in insulin therapy, it is not clear whether the inverse association between the incidence of severe hypoglycemia and HbA1c levels still exists. In this trend analysis, the researchers investigate the association over time between HbA1C levels and the risk of severe hypoglycemia in a large cohort (group) of Austrian and German children and young adults with type 1 diabetes.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers analyzed data on Hb1Ac levels and on incidents of severe hypoglycemia and hypoglycemic coma collected from 37,539 children and young adults with type 1 diabetes between 1995 and 2012 by the DPV (Diabetes Patienten Verlaufsdokumentation) Initiative for diabetes care. The DPV cohort includes around 80% of all children and young adults with type 1 diabetes in Germany and Austria. Over the study period, the use of insulin analogs (compounds related to insulin that keep blood sugar levels steadier than regular insulin injections) and of insulin pumps (which deliver constant amounts of short-acting insulin analogs to the body) increased, and there was an increase in how often patients monitored their blood sugar level. Notably, between 1995 and 2012, the relative risk for severe hypoglycemia per 1% decrease in Hb1Ac declined from 1.28 to 1.05, and the relative risk for hypoglycemic coma per 1% decrease in Hb1Ac declined from 1.39 to 1.01. That is, the strength of the inverse association between severe hypoglycemia or coma and HbA1c decreased during the study period. Expressed another way, between 1995 and 2012, the relative risk for severe hypoglycemia and coma per 1% HbA1c decrease dropped by 1.2% and 1.9%, respectively, each year.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings reveal a substantial decrease since 1995 in the previously strong inverse association between low HbA1c levels and severe hypoglycemia and hypoglycemic coma in this cohort of young Germans and Austrians with type 1 diabetes. This decrease mainly occurred because of substantial reductions in the risk of hypoglycemia in patients with HbA1c levels between 6.0% and 7.9%, but the study provides no information about the drivers of this reduction. Moreover, these findings may apply only to young type 1 diabetes patients of European descent, and their accuracy may be limited by other aspects of the study design. However, by showing that HbA1c has become a minor predictor for severe hypoglycemia in this group of patients, these findings suggest that strict glycemic control in young patients with type 1 diabetes has become safer in recent years. Thus, it should now be possible to reduce the risk of long-term diabetic complications in such patients through achievement of near-normal glycemic control without increasing patients' risk of severe hypoglycemia.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001742.
The US National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse provides information about diabetes for patients, health care professionals, and the general public (in English and Spanish), including information on the HbA1c test and a description of a trial that compared the effects of intensive versus conventional treatment of blood glucose levels on the development of diabetic complications in patients with type 1 diabetes
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information for patients and carers about type 1 diabetes, including a video that describes parents' experiences caring for a child with type 1 diabetes, and information about treating type 1 diabetes that includes a short video about HbA1c
The charity Diabetes UK provides detailed information about type 1 diabetes for patients and carers
The UK-based non-profit organization Healthtalkonline provides information about type 1 diabetes and young people, including interviews with young people about their experiences of the condition
MedlinePlus provides links to further resources and advice about type 1 diabetes (in English and Spanish)
Information about the DPV Initiative is available (mainly in German)