Examining patterns of change in body mass index (BMI) and other cardiometabolic risk factors in individuals during the years before they were diagnosed with diabetes, Kristine Færch and colleagues report that few of them experienced dramatic BMI changes.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Patients with type 2 diabetes vary greatly with respect to degree of obesity at time of diagnosis. To address the heterogeneity of type 2 diabetes, we characterised patterns of change in body mass index (BMI) and other cardiometabolic risk factors before type 2 diabetes diagnosis.
Methods and Findings
We studied 6,705 participants from the Whitehall II study, an observational prospective cohort study of civil servants based in London. White men and women, initially free of diabetes, were followed with 5-yearly clinical examinations from 1991–2009 for a median of 14.1 years (interquartile range [IQR]: 8.7–16.2 years). Type 2 diabetes developed in 645 (1,209 person-examinations) and 6,060 remained free of diabetes during follow-up (14,060 person-examinations). Latent class trajectory analysis of incident diabetes cases was used to identify patterns of pre-disease BMI. Associated trajectories of cardiometabolic risk factors were studied using adjusted mixed-effects models. Three patterns of BMI changes were identified. Most participants belonged to the “stable overweight” group (n = 604, 94%) with a relatively constant BMI level within the overweight category throughout follow-up. They experienced slightly worsening of beta cell function and insulin sensitivity from 5 years prior to diagnosis. A small group of “progressive weight gainers” (n = 15) exhibited a pattern of consistent weight gain before diagnosis. Linear increases in blood pressure and an exponential increase in insulin resistance a few years before diagnosis accompanied the weight gain. The “persistently obese” (n = 26) were severely obese throughout the whole 18 years before diabetes diagnosis. They experienced an initial beta cell compensation followed by loss of beta cell function, whereas insulin sensitivity was relatively stable. Since the generalizability of these findings is limited, the results need confirmation in other study populations.
Three patterns of obesity changes prior to diabetes diagnosis were accompanied by distinct trajectories of insulin resistance and other cardiometabolic risk factors in a white, British population. While these results should be verified independently, the great majority of patients had modest weight gain prior to diagnosis. These results suggest that strategies focusing on small weight reductions for the entire population may be more beneficial than predominantly focusing on weight loss for high-risk individuals.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Worldwide, more than 350 million people have diabetes, a metabolic disorder characterized by high amounts of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Blood sugar levels are normally controlled by insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas after meals (digestion of food produces glucose). In people with type 2 diabetes (the commonest form of diabetes) blood sugar control fails because the fat and muscle cells that normally respond to insulin by removing sugar from the blood become insulin resistant. Type 2 diabetes, which was previously called adult-onset diabetes, can be controlled with diet and exercise, and with drugs that help the pancreas make more insulin or that make cells more sensitive to insulin. Long-term complications, which include an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, reduce the life expectancy of people with diabetes by about 10 years compared to people without diabetes. The number of people with diabetes is expected to increase dramatically over the next decades, coinciding with rising obesity rates in many countries. To better understand diabetes development, to identify people at risk, and to find ways to prevent the disease are urgent public health goals.
Why Was This Study Done?
It is known that people who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of developing diabetes. Because of this association, a common assumption is that people who experienced recent weight gain are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes. In this prospective cohort study (an investigation that records the baseline characteristics of a group of people and then follows them to see who develops specific conditions), the researchers tested the hypothesis that substantial weight gain precedes a diagnosis of diabetes and explored more generally the patterns of body weight and composition in the years before people develop diabetes. They then examined whether changes in body weight corresponded with changes in other risk factors for diabetes (such as insulin resistance), lipid profiles and blood pressure.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers studied participants from the Whitehall II study, a prospective cohort study initiated in 1985 to investigate the socioeconomic inequalities in disease. Whitehall II enrolled more than 10,000 London-based government employees. Participants underwent regular health checks during which their weight and height were measured, blood tests were done, and they filled out questionnaires for other relevant information. From 1991 onwards, participants were tested every five years for diabetes. The 6,705 participants included in this study were initially free of diabetes, and most of them were followed for at least 14 years. During the follow-up, 645 participants developed diabetes, while 6,060 remained free of the disease.
The researchers used a statistical tool called “latent class trajectory analysis” to study patterns of changes in body mass index (BMI) in the years before people developed diabetes. BMI is a measure of human obesity based on a person's weight and height. Latent class trajectory analysis is an unbiased way to subdivide a number of people into groups that differ based on specified parameters. In this case, the researchers wanted to identify several groups among all the people who eventually developed diabetes each with a distinct pattern of BMI development. Having identified such groups, they also examined how a variety of tests associated with diabetes risk, and risks for heart disease and stroke changed in the identified groups over time.
They identified three different patterns of BMI changes in the 645 participants who developed diabetes. The vast majority (606 individuals, or 94%) belonged to a group they called “stable-overweight.” These people showed no dramatic change in their BMI in the years before they were diagnosed. They were overweight when they first entered the study and gained or lost little weight during the follow-up years. They showed only minor signs of insulin-resistance, starting five years before they developed diabetes. A second, much smaller group of 15 people gained weight consistently in the years before diagnosis. As they were gaining weight, these people also had raises in blood pressure and substantial gains in insulin resistance. The 26 remaining participants who formed the third group were persistently obese for the entire time they participated in the study, in some cases up to 18 years before they were diagnosed with diabetes. They had some signs of insulin resistance in the years before diagnosis, but not the substantial gain often seen as the hallmark of “pre-diabetes.”
What Do These Findings Mean?
These results suggest that diabetes development is a complicated process, and one that differs between individuals who end up with the disease. They call into question the common notion that most people who develop diabetes have recently gained a lot of weight or are obese. A substantial rise in insulin resistance, another established risk factor for diabetes, was only seen in the smallest of the groups, namely the people who gained weight consistently for years before they were diagnosed. When the scientists applied a commonly used predictor of diabetes called the “Framingham diabetes risk score” to their largest “stably overweight” group, they found that these people were not classified as having a particularly high risk, and that their risk scores actually declined in the last five years before their diabetes diagnosis. This suggests that predicting diabetes in this group might be difficult.
The researchers applied their methodology only to this one cohort of white civil servants in England. Before drawing more firm conclusions on the process of diabetes development, it will be important to test whether similar results are seen in other cohorts and among more diverse individuals. If the three groups identified here are found in other cohorts, another question is whether they are as unequal in size as in this example. And if they are, can the large group of stably overweight people be further subdivided in ways that suggest specific mechanisms of disease development? Even without knowing how generalizable the provocative findings of this study are, they should stimulate debate on how to identify people at risk for diabetes and how to prevent the disease or delay its onset.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001602.
The US National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse provides information about diabetes for patients, health-care professionals, and the general public, including information on diabetes prevention (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information for patients and carers about type 2 diabetes; it includes people's stories about diabetes
The charity Diabetes UK also provides detailed information about diabetes for patients and carers, including information on healthy lifestyles for people with diabetes, and has a further selection of stories from people with diabetes; the charity Healthtalkonline has interviews with people about their experiences of diabetes
MedlinePlus provides links to further resources and advice about diabetes (in English and Spanish)
More information about the Whitehall II study is available