Triglycerides blood test may predict neuropathy in patients with diabetes

A common blood test for triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood, may help predict neuropathy in patients with diabetes, according to a study conducted by the University of Michigan Health System and Wayne State University.

Neuropathy is a serious complication of type 1 and type 2 diabetes in which a patient's nerves are damaged or lost. It causes numbness, tingling and pain in the hands, arms, legs and feet. The condition affects about 60 percent of the diabetic population.

The study followed 427 diabetes patients with neuropathy over a one-year period. Researchers found that those with elevated triglycerides were significantly more likely to have worsening neuropathy independent of disease duration, age, and blood glucose control. Higher levels of blood glucose did not prove significant.

“In our study, elevated serum triglycerides were the most accurate at predicting nerve fiber loss, compared to all other measures,” said Kelli A. Sullivan, Ph.D, co-first author of the study and an assistant research professor in neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Triglycerides are the chemical form of lipids, or fat. The body converts unused calories eaten in foods to triglycerides and stores them in fat cells. Hormones release triglycerides from fat tissue when the body needs energy between meals. Higher than normal amounts in the blood puts a person at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Elevated triglyceride levels is one of the most common types of lipid disorders in patients with type 2 diabetes. Cardiovascular disease is the main cause of excess mortality among patients with diabetes, according to the University of Michigan, with neuropathy serving as an important predictor of these deaths.

"These results set the stage for clinicians to be able to address lowering lipid counts with their diabetes patients with neuropathy as vigilantly as they pursue glucose control," said Eva L. Feldman, M.D., Ph.D, senior author of the study and professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School.

People can reduce blood triglyceride levels with diet and exercise changes. According to the American Heart Association, eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and reducing saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol in the diet helps. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products is ideal. People should also get moderate-intensity exercise at least 30 minutes a day on five or more days a week.

This study also appears online in the journal Diabetes and will appear in print in the July issue.

Sources: University of Michigan Health System, American Heart Association

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