Whenever I get a new patient with type 2 diabetes, who is generally on metformin, one of the very first questions they ask me is, “Can I get off my medication?” Everybody, it seems, who gets diabetes wants to not have diabetes.
So, what does this really mean? What does this mean to me as a clinician? And what does this mean to my patients? The American Diabetes Association recently came out with a consensus statement that defines and interprets the definition of remission in people with type 2 diabetes. Basically, if the hemoglobin A1c is less than 6.5% without diabetes medications for at least 3 months, that’s considered remission.
There are other considerations, such as metabolic surgery, that can lead to remission. But again, such patients should be 3 months post surgery and at least 3 months off diabetes medication. As for a lifestyle intervention, the authors state that remission really happens within about 6 months.
That leads me to wonder: What is remission? Remission really means temporary recovery, so it doesn’t mean a cure. Now, I’m not against curing diabetes. In fact, I’m all for it. But when somebody gets diabetes – and honestly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s type 1 or type 2 – the first thing I think of, and I think the first thing that my patients are taught, is how important it is to have a healthy lifestyle. This healthy lifestyle isn’t just for people with diabetes; it largely means the healthy lifestyle that all of us should follow, one where we eat fewer simple carbs, less processed food, more vegetables, more lean proteins and meats – all of the things that we know we should do. And all of the things that keep us healthy. To some degree, I don’t think you can ever get “remission” from diabetes, because if having diabetes points an individual toward having a healthier lifestyle, I think that’s great.
I think people should exercise more. When it comes to treating diabetes, exercise is key. When you think about obesity, we want to help people who are overweight or obese lose weight as part of their treatment for diabetes. And that doesn’t go away, either.
So, no, people who are diagnosed with diabetes don’t really go into remission if they keep their same old habits and don’t lose weight and don’t exercise. But many people with diabetes can get off medication if they do those things.
However, it’s not true for everybody, and I don’t want people to get unrealistic expectations because I think there are probably about a thousand different subtypes of type 2 diabetes. And I’ve definitely seen people who are lean with type 2 diabetes who don’t respond as well to a lifestyle intervention, or people who are more insulin deficient, who also need medication.
I think it’s really important to frame the expectation that, if remission means going back to the way it was before, when they didn’t have to think about what they ate or whether or not they exercised, that’s not going to happen. I think diabetes should really be a wake-up call that people need to be healthier in terms of their lifestyle habits.
The issue of medication is really an individual one, and I think we need to help patients look for what’s best for the individual, what their targets are, what their goals are. But we also have to think that diabetes isn’t just about glucose.
So remission in terms of the ADA’s definition looks at glucose, but I look at more than glucose. You have to look at lipids and blood pressure. And, as I mentioned earlier, you have to look at whether or not a person has preexisting cardiovascular disease or has the presence of microvascular complications that need to be screened for and treated.
I actually think that, in some ways, the diagnosis of diabetes is helpful simply because it helps put people on a better path to health. I don’t want people to think that remission means that they can go back to unhealthy habits. I really encourage all people to live a healthier lifestyle, and if it leads to improvements in glucose levels and getting off medication, I think that’s wonderful and a worthy goal. But remember, health and meeting one’s targets remain key in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
Dr. Peters is a professor in the department of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She reported serving on the advisory board or speakers’ bureau of Medscape and several pharmaceutical companies, and has received research support from Dexcom, MannKind, and AstraZeneca. This perspective and an accompanying video first appeared on Medscape.com.