Monday, September 12, 2011

Fasting blood glucose of 83 mg/dl and heart disease: Fact and fiction

If you are interested in the connection between blood glucose control and heart disease, you have probably done your homework. This is a scary connection, and sometimes the information on the Internetz make people even more scared. You have probably seen something to this effect mentioned:
Heart disease risk increases in a linear fashion as fasting blood glucose rises beyond 83 mg/dl.
In fact, I have seen this many times, including on some very respectable blogs. I suspect it started with one blogger, and then got repeated over and over again by others; sometimes things become “true” through repetition. Frequently the reference cited is a study by Brunner and colleagues, published in Diabetes Care in 2006. I doubt very much the bloggers in question actually read this article. Sometimes a study by Coutinho and colleagues is also cited, but this latter study is actually a meta-analysis.

So I decided to take a look at the Brunner and colleagues study. It covers, among other things, the relationship between cardiovascular disease (they use the acronym CHD for this), and 2-hour blood glucose levels after a 50-g oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT). They tested thousands of men at one point in time, and then followed them for over 30 years, which is really impressive. The graph below shows the relationship between CHD and blood glucose in mmol/l. Here is a calculator to convert the values to mg/dl.

The authors note in the limitations section that: “Fasting glucose was not measured.” So these results have nothing to do with fasting glucose, as we are led to believe when we see this study cited on the web. Also, on the abstract, the authors say that there is “no evidence of nonlinearity”, but in the results section they say that the data provides “evidence of a nonlinear relationship”. The relationship sure looks nonlinear to me. I tried to approximate it manually below.

Note that CHD mortality really goes up more clearly after a glucose level of 5.5 mmol/l (100 mg/dl). But it also varies significantly more widely after that level; the magnitudes of the error bars reflect that. Also, you can see that at around 6.7 mmol/l (121 mg/dl), CHD mortality is on average about the same as at 5.5 mmol/l (100 mg/dl) and 3.5 mmol/l (63 mg/dl). This last level suggests an abnormally high insulin response, bringing blood glucose levels down too much at the 2-hour mark – i.e., reactive hypoglycemia, which the study completely ignores.

These findings are consistent with the somewhat chaotic nature of blood glucose variations in normoglycemic individuals, and also with evidence suggesting that average blood glucose levels go up with age in a J-curve fashion even in long-lived individuals.

We also know that traits vary along a bell curve for any population of individuals. Research results are often reported as averages, but the average individual does not exist. The average individual is an abstraction, and you are not it. Glucose metabolism is a complex trait, which is influenced by many factors. This is why there is so much variation in mortality for different glucose levels, as indicated by the magnitudes of the error bars.

In any event, these findings are clearly inconsistent with the statement that "heart disease risk increases in a linear fashion as fasting blood glucose rises beyond 83 mg/dl". The authors even state early in the article that another study based on the same dataset, to which theirs was a follow-up, suggested that:
…. [CHD was associated with levels above] a postload glucose of 5.3 mmol/l [95 mg/dl], but below this level the degree of glycemia was not associated with coronary risk.
Now, exaggerating the facts, to the point of creating fictitious results, may have a positive effect. It may scare people enough that they will actually check their blood glucose levels. Perhaps people will remove certain foods like doughnuts and jelly beans from their diets, or at least reduce their consumption dramatically. However, many people may find themselves with higher fasting blood glucose levels, even after removing those foods from their diets, as their bodies try to adapt to lower circulating insulin levels. Some may see higher levels for doing other things that are likely to improve their health in the long term. Others may see higher levels as they get older.

Many of the complications from diabetes, including heart disease, stem from poor glucose control. But it seems increasingly clear that blood glucose control does not have to be perfect to keep those complications at bay. For most people, blood glucose levels can be maintained within a certain range with the proper diet and lifestyle. You may be looking at a long life if you catch the problem early, even if your blood glucose is not always at 83 mg/dl (4.6 mmol/l). More on this on my next post.