Experts often talk about the “burden” of a disease or illness. The word acts as a tidy container for all the unpleasantness people with that condition may experience—from their symptoms, to the cost of their care, to the restrictions imposed on their lifestyle, to the health complications that may arise. For people with Type 2 diabetes, this burden can be high.
Routine management of Type 2 diabetes often involves major changes to one’s diet and physical activity. And for many, especially those taking insulin to manage their blood sugar, the disease can necessitate daily blood-glucose monitoring, a process that entails pricking a finger to draw blood and then dabbing that blood onto a glucose monitor’s test strip. Doing this several times a week—month after month—can present overlapping challenges. According to a 2013 survey in the journal Diabetes Spectrum, people find finger-prick glucose monitoring to be painful, and the results can be confusing or unhelpful.
“Patients don’t want to prick their fingers, and they come in all the time and say, ‘I’m tired of this,’” says Dr. Francisco Pasquel, a diabetes specialist and associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
But relief is on the way. Continuous glucose monitors, or CGMs, are small devices-—often about the size of a quarter-—that use a small under-the-skin needle to continuously monitor blood-glucose levels. This information can be transmitted—in some cases wirelessly and automatically—to a smartphone app or other device. “You can look at glucose levels for a single point in time, but you can also look at trends in values over time,” says Dr. Roy Beck, medical director of the nonprofit Jaeb Center for Health Research in Tampa. Beck’s work has found that continuous glucose monitoring may provide a number of benefits for people with Type 2 diabetes.
These monitors are just one of several new advancements in Type 2 diabetes care and management. From connected technologies to new drug treatments, medical science is making steady and sometimes life-changing progress in the treatment of this condition. Here, experts describe some of the latest and greatest developments.
Continuous glucose monitors
People with Type 1 diabetes typically have to check their blood-sugar levels on a daily basis, or even multiple times each day. Because testing is such a big part of managing that disease, the research on continuous glucose monitors started with these patients. That work has shown that CGMs provide multiple benefits, including reduced hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c) levels, which is an important measure of healthy blood glucose. Continuous glucose monitors are now being studied in people with Type 2 diabetes, and research points to multiple benefits.
For a study published in 2021 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Beck and his colleagues compared continuous glucose monitoring to standard finger-prick tests among people with Type 2 diabetes who were using insulin. They found that continuous monitoring was associated with a significantly greater drop in HbA1c. They also found that continuous monitoring helped people avoid risky and severe drops in blood sugar (a.k.a. hypoglycemia). “It’s pretty clear that there’s a benefit for people with Type 2 diabetes who are using insulin,” he says.
More than 90% of people with diabetes have Type 2 diabetes, and Beck says that roughly 30% of these people are using insulin. In other words, there are many people with Type 2 diabetes who stand to benefit from continuous glucose monitoring. However, use of these monitors is still mostly confined to people with Type 1 diabetes. “Use is slowly increasing in Type 2 patients, but I think it’s still too low considering this is a non-pharmacological approach”—something many people prefer because it avoids the side effects of medications—“that can help people,” he says.
Even for people with Type 2 diabetes who are not taking insulin, Beck says that continuous glucose monitoring could be helpful. “There’s a need for more studies to prove it, but it makes sense that it would likely have benefits,” he says. For example, monitoring blood sugar in real time could help people make diet or lifestyle changes that reduce their risks for long-term health complications. “Normally, blood glucose following a meal shouldn’t go above 140 [mg/dL],” he says. But based on factors like diet, meal timing, and exercise habits, someone with Type 2 diabetes may experience post-meal blood-sugar spikes that surpass 200 or even 300 mg/dL. These spikes could cause few symptoms or short-term consequences, Beck says, but over time they can contribute to the development of common diabetes-related complications such as kidney failure, heart disease, or diabetic retinopathy (an eye condition that can cause blurry vision or blindness). “The first time people use these continuous monitors, it can be a real eye-opener,” he adds. “I think they could be most helpful for self-management, and Type 2 diabetes is a disease where self-management through diet and exercise can make a huge difference.”
Other experts second this. “Patients using these devices can receive a graph of their glucose values over time, which helps them understand the effects of nutrition on glucose control, or how they could modify their exercise to make improvements,” says Dr. Ilias Spanakis, an associate professor of medicine in the division of endocrinology, diabetes, and nutrition at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
For patients who are reliant on insulin to manage their blood glucose, combining continuous glucose monitors with insulin pumps—devices that automatically inject insulin as needed—could also lead to major improvements. “Smart algorithms that connect the two can automatically adjust glucose based on glucose values,” Spanakis says. This is already possible, and it’s likely to become much more commonplace, he adds.
For many people with diabetes, continuous glucose monitoring could provide a safer and simpler path forward.
Bariatric surgery for Type 2 diabetes
Historically, bariatric (weight-loss) surgery has been used primarily to help people manage severe obesity, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as a BMI of 40 or higher. Many people who are severely obese also have diabetes, and research has found that these surgical procedures can help reduce the burden of Type 2 diabetes or even send it into remission.
A 2018 study from researchers at the University of Oklahoma found that Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery, a common bariatric procedure, vastly outperformed typical medical management techniques—such as diet changes, doctor’s visits, and prescription drugs—among people with Type 2 diabetes. Surgery led to diabetes remission in roughly 28% of patients, compared with a remission rate of just 4% among the non-surgery group, according to the study results. More research has found that bariatric surgery may effectively send Type 2 diabetes into remission.
“Surgery does not just lead to weight loss, but also to an improvement in glycemic control, which happens even before the weight loss occurs,” says Emory’s Pasquel, who has published work on the benefits of bariatric surgery for people with Type 2 diabetes. Exactly how the surgery does this isn’t well understood, he says. However, bariatric surgery affects appetite, food intake, caloric absorption, and multiple neuroendocrine pathways—all of which could contribute to its beneficial actions for people with Type 2 diabetes.
In the future, Pasquel says these procedures are likely to become more commonplace even for people with Type 2 diabetes who are not severely obese.
New pharmaceutical drugs
There are a lot of different diabetes drugs on the market, each with its own risks and benefits. But experts say two types are emerging as potential “game changers” when it comes to Type 2 diabetes treatment.
Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) is a hormone released in the gut during digestion—one that plays a role in blood-sugar homeostasis. A class of drugs known as GLP-1 receptor agonists can interact with GLP-1 receptors in ways that lower appetite, slow digestion, and provide other benefits for people with Type 2 diabetes. These GLP-1 drugs aren’t new. But Pasquel says the latest versions are different in that they work on two different receptors, not one. “Recent evidence shows that activating both receptors has a remarkable impact on weight loss and glycemic control,” he says. Especially for people with Type 2 diabetes who are at high risk for heart or arterial disease, he says that these new drugs seem to be a big upgrade over previous medications.
A second category of drug has also emerged as a standout in the treatment of Type 2 diabetes. Known as sodium-glucose cotransporter-2 (SGLT-2) inhibitors, these drugs help the kidneys remove sugar from a person’s blood. Not only does this improve blood-sugar control in people with Type 2 diabetes, but it also helps protect them from heart failure and kidney disease—two common and serious complications. Pasquel says these drugs are so effective that they’re now being used in people with heart failure or kidney disease who do not have Type 2 diabetes.
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Emerging ways to think about weight loss
Experts have long understood that weight loss can help people reduce their Type 2 diabetes symptoms and risks. This recognition has led to research on a number of weight-loss diets. More research is needed, but some of the latest studies suggest that fasting plans—in particular, intermittent fasting—may be particularly beneficial for people with Type 2 diabetes.
Intermittent fasting involves cutting out calorie-containing foods and drinks for an extended period of time—anywhere from 12 hours to two days depending on the approach a person chooses. A 2019 research review in the journal Nutrients found that intermittent fasting promotes weight loss, increases insulin sensitivity, and reduces insulin levels in the blood. All of this is helpful for people with Type 2 diabetes. “Essentially, fasting is doing what we prescribe diabetes medications to do, which is to improve insulin sensitivity,” says Benjamin Horne, director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at Intermountain Healthcare in Utah.
It’s not yet clear which form of intermittent fasting is best. But Horne says that time-restricted eating—a type of fasting that involves squeezing all the day’s calories into single six- or eight-hour feeding windows—is leading the pack, largely because patients are able to stick with it.
There are more new advancements in Type 2 diabetes care. The interventions described here—from continuous glucose monitors to novel drugs—are some of the most promising, but they have company. It’s safe to say that, looking ahead, more people with Type 2 diabetes will be able to effectively manage or mitigate their symptoms.