Type 2 diabetes is on the rise, with 1.5 million new cases occurring annually in the United States. It has become so common that you probably know one or more people with the condition, and they may even seem relatively healthy. But the fact that it is a manageable disease for most people shouldn’t lead you to believe that it is not very serious. Besides the long list of complications with which diabetes is associated, new research now suggests that those who are diagnosed with diabetes at an older age may face a higher risk of cancer as well.
The study, which was conducted at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, found that developing diabetes over the age of 50 may be an indication of an early stage of pancreatic cancer.1 Setiawan, Veronica Wendy; et al. “Pancreatic Cancer Following Incident Diabetes in African Americans and Latinos: The Multiethnic Cohort.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 18 June 2018. Accessed 25 June 2018. http://academic.oup.com/jnci/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/jnci/djy090/5036586?redirectedFrom=fulltext.
These results are based on an investigation that included 48,995 men and women over 50. All the subjects were African American or Hispanic, and none had a diagnosis of either diabetes or pancreatic cancer when the trial began.
During the approximately 20 years the participants were tracked, 15,883 of them were diagnosed with diabetes and 408 were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Those who had developed diabetes were shown to be more than twice as likely to have pancreatic cancer than their counterparts without diabetes. What’s more, timing appears to be an important factor. More than half of the volunteers with pancreatic cancer had been diagnosed with diabetes within a three-year window before their cancer diagnosis. This provides further evidence that the two may be strongly linked and that a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes at an age over 50 might signal the presence of an early stage of pancreatic cancer.
This is significant because pancreatic cancer is a notoriously asymptomatic disease. For that reason, it is often not diagnosed until a later stage when it has already metastasized to other organs of the body. That’s what makes pancreatic cancer so deadly, with approximately 55,000 new cases each year and 44,000 expected deaths.
The study is limited by restricting its population sample to only African Americans and Hispanics, which makes it unclear whether these results would apply to others as well. But in a way, that is also one of the strengths of the study. These two groups are known to have high rates of diabetes, which is substantially less prevalent in society at large. The findings are also in line with those of earlier research that has shown an association between diabetes and pancreatic cancer. For example, a 2014 study at the University of Melbourne in Australia found that individuals with diabetes have twice the risk of developing pancreatic cancer as those without the condition.2 Batabyal, Pikli; et al. “Association of Diabetes Mellitus and Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma: A Meta-Analysis of 88 Studies.” Annals of Surgical Oncology. 9 March 2014. Accessed 26 June 2018. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1245/s10434-014-3625-6.
It makes sense that there would be a connection between these two diseases for two reasons. First, they both involve a problem within the pancreas. This organ helps regulate blood sugar levels in the body by producing insulin and glucagon to prevent extreme spikes and drops. We develop Type 2 diabetes if the pancreas stops producing sufficient quantities of insulin or if the fat and muscle cells develop resistance to insulin. Pancreatic cancer arises when malignant tumors form in the cells of the pancreas. And second, several studies have shown a connection between sugar—at least in the diet—and cancer.3 Makarem N, Bandera EV, Nicholson JM, Parekh N. “Consumption of Sugars, Sugary Foods, and Sugary Beverages in Relation to Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies.” Annu Rev Nutr. 2018 May 25. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29801420 Therefore, these findings are very concerning since the rate of diabetes is so high in the U.S., currently estimated at more than 30 million people.
Even if you are well under the age of 50, the best way to prevent diabetes and potentially pancreatic cancer is to lower your risk factors. Being overweight is closely tied to both diabetes and pancreatic cancer, so shedding excess pounds through a more nutritious, lower calorie diet is essential. A sedentary lifestyle is another risk factor, so it is important to start exercising daily. And all of this becomes even more important as you age, since being 45 or older is in itself a risk factor for both diseases. So start making the necessary lifestyle changes that can reduce your chances of developing diabetes or pancreatic cancer down the road.
|↑1|| Setiawan, Veronica Wendy; et al. “Pancreatic Cancer Following Incident Diabetes in African Americans and Latinos: The Multiethnic Cohort.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 18 June 2018. Accessed 25 June 2018. http://academic.oup.com/jnci/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/jnci/djy090/5036586?redirectedFrom=fulltext.|
|↑2||Batabyal, Pikli; et al. “Association of Diabetes Mellitus and Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma: A Meta-Analysis of 88 Studies.” Annals of Surgical Oncology. 9 March 2014. Accessed 26 June 2018. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1245/s10434-014-3625-6.|
|↑3||Makarem N, Bandera EV, Nicholson JM, Parekh N. “Consumption of Sugars, Sugary Foods, and Sugary Beverages in Relation to Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies.” Annu Rev Nutr. 2018 May 25. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29801420|