The Asthma-Diabetes Link: Real or Illusory?

Does asthma boost your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease? A new review of years of medical records suggests that it does.  Minnesota’s Mayo clinic conducted the study, which looked at heaps of medical records from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The link was straightforward. People with asthma were more likely to have both diabetes and heart disease than people without the breathing condition.

The researchers were taken aback by the apparent link because it doesn’t fit their current understanding of the conditions. Doctors believe that asthmatics have one kind of immune system–prone to allergies–and that heart disease and diabetic patients have another–prone to inflammation issues. “It was surprising because there are two broad (immune profile) categories that they’re looking at here,” said Dr. Jennifer Appleyard of St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit. Having asthma, therefore, shouldn’t have caused the 2,400 people in the study to be any more likely to have those other conditions.

So what happened?

It’s possible, of course, that the conditions, and the immune profiles, have more subtle connections than scientists previously thought. But researchers also pointed to the treatment that asthmatics once used heavily–steroids. Those on steroid treatment can gain weight, and excess weight is a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. More treatments are available today, doctors note, so further research is needed.

“It would warrant a prospective study to find patients with asthma now and follow them to see what happens,” said Dr. Linda Dahl, an ear, nose, and throat specialist. “It would be important to assess both the disease and treatment, and how that affects what other illnesses develop.”

The research was presented in late March at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology’s annual meeting in San Francisco.


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